By Emma Thornton
There is no way to prepare for a cancer diagnosis, and it often takes time to understand where your diagnosis is on the spectrum—anywhere from a mildly inconvenient detour to a horribly painful death sentence. Believe me, your mind goes to the darkest place very quickly.
In May 2015, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Stage 3 breast cancer, and my prognosis was somewhere in the middle. My treatment began with four months of intense chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy. The support from my family, friends and colleagues during those early weeks shaped how I approached treatment, and how I wanted to live, whatever time I might have left. Some of those interactions were more helpful than others, and often in unpredictable ways.
Shortly after my diagnosis, I asked a co-worker (I worked at Nike at the time) to go play golf. He said he thought I “wouldn’t be doing that sort of thing anymore.” It was not the response I was hoping for, but it was the response I needed. I used it as motivation to say: Fuck you, and fuck cancer. I’m going to play as much golf as I want.
At that moment, golf became more than something I did for the challenge and fresh air. It became a refuge and an incentive to continue living my life while I battled the disease that threatened it. Golf gave me a reason to get up, get out and keep moving. For every round of chemo, I played one round of golf (well, sometimes two or three). After several rounds of chemo, I realised that the lessons I had learned playing golf for more than 10 years were applicable in my fight against cancer. Here are nine that have had a positive effect on my life and might have value for you.
The day I was diagnosed, I went out on my home golf course—Oswego Lake Country Club in Oregon. I went with my family, and we drove out to my favourite hole where you can see Mount Hood and the Cascade mountains. Taking in this incredible view gave me perspective of my tiny place in this world. We savoured the stillness and contemplated our lives. That moment set the tone for my treatment. The golf course is where I went to escape—feel normal, human. Golf is often celebrated for its scenic walks, but it’s also an opportunity to be still and quiet. In the seconds before a player strokes a putt, the world seems to stand still. It’s in these moments when the chaos of daily life melts away, and we’re able to relax—to appreciate being alive.
In golf, success is highly dependent on concentration: physical, mental and emotional. It’s easy to let your mind wander instead of focusing on the shot in front of you. It’s also tempting to slip into negative self-talk, but if we allow fear to govern us, we set ourselves up to be less than our potential. When I received my cancer diagnosis, it was hard not to think of a dark future. My diagnosis actually happened in stages: I had to go through various MRIs and CT scans. There were a couple of weeks when I didn’t know my fate. The way I approached it was to talk to people who had gone through it, to find success stories, and to consider my options beyond only a western-medicine approach. I wanted to take control of my destiny instead of feeling like a victim.
Courtesy of Emma Thornton
On the course, picturing the desired shot is a way to increase the odds of that outcome. In that way we define our reality. To improve your chances of beating cancer, you must take responsibility for your life—physically and emotionally. It’s up to you to define your reality and move forward, even if it’s against the odds. One of my surgeons told me I was going to have a rough year, but that cancer wouldn’t define me. That was encouraging, because it meant I could see a future and start formulating a plan that empowered me to have success.
Every shot in a round of golf is a different problem to solve, with variables like distance, elevation, terrain, the lie and even the weather. Some days it seems as though it’s just one bad shot after another. But each shot needs acknowledgement, preparation, assessment and a plan. It’s the same with cancer. Every step in the treatment process needs to be addressed based on the challenge it represents because a round of chemotherapy knocks you sideways. Staying healthy was my main challenge. If I didn’t keep my strength up, exercise and get my body fit after a round of chemo, I wouldn’t be allowed to go through the next round. Cancer helped me put my golf-course obstacles into perspective, and golf helped me better problem-solve for cancer.
Golf can be one of the most difficult and frustrating sports to learn. Sheer effort rarely brings results, but persistence usually does. It’s about following a process and being patient. The uncertainty of not knowing how your body is responding to chemo or what’s next on your cancer journey can drive you crazy. All I could do was take it day by day and trust I was making progress. I made a vow early on that I would move each day, no matter how weak I felt. Some days that meant my oldest daughter Milly, who was 7 at the time, had her hands on my back, pushing me up the hill. I know it had to be hard for her to see her mother struggle, but it was great that she knew when to step in and bring enthusiasm. If you concentrate on what you can control, and follow a process, you’ll be surprised at how far you can get.
Courtesy of Alan P. Pittman
When you approach golf with confidence, commitment and camaraderie, you open yourself to the best possible results. Golf and life have moments that demand clarity and serious attention, but by smiling and laughing as much as possible, especially during adversity, we allow ourselves to enjoy the larger journey. Just like my golf buddies, my chemo buddies were great at making me laugh when I felt frustrated or tired. One of my best friends, Dominque, got me to dress up in costumes for my chemotherapy appointments. One time we went as Farrah Fawcett and Dolly Parton, singing country music on the way to the hospital. It was a goof, but it gave me energy and confidence. When I go back to the hospital for checkups now, I can’t help but smile when recalling those times.
In some ways, golf is the most individual of sports. It’s you against yourself and the course. Fighting cancer is the same. Only you have the power to find the strength you didn’t know you had. But success is only possible with the support of an extended community. The investment your coach, mentor, caddie, teammates or golf buddies make in your life enhances your enjoyment. During treatment, my co-workers at Nike, where I ran the global style guide for Nike Women, were incredible. So were my neighbors and members of Oswego Lake. They brought our family food—a lot of bone broth!—chauffered my kids to places they needed to be and more. A neighbor I had never met turned up at my house one day with a gift—lavender pillows that you stick in the microwave to warm. A friend of hers had gone through cancer and had loved them. I was endlessly overwhelmed by people’s kindness.
A fundamental rule of golf is to play the ball where it lies. It’s about accepting that we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond. Once we accept the situation, we can shift our perspective from “How did I end up here?” to “What am I aiming for next?” Early in my treatment, I wanted to find stories of people who had dealt with tremendous adversity. I asked myself, Who trains for hardship or adversity, and who can I learn from? This led me to the book “Embrace the Suck” by former Navy SEAL Stephen Madden. The book’s title became my mantra: You train, grit your teeth and endure hardship, but you know you’re not alone and that like others, you too can get through it.
Thornton with her oncologist at the Oregon Health & Science University/Knight Cancer Ward.
Every course is beautiful in its own way. It can be easy to keep your head down and miss the wonder of the sky, clouds, wildlife, even the rain. But acknowledging and appreciating that beauty allows us to breathe more freely, to relax and enjoy the moment. That’s also true with cancer, where it’s possible to find beauty and gratitude where you might least expect it. A double mastectomy meant free boob jobs for life. Chemo hair loss meant no shaving. Weight loss meant I could fit into a skin-tight leather cat suit that I wore for kicks to a round of chemotherapy. Getting to wear a variety of wigs meant that I could change my look as often as I wanted to. There’s even beauty in pain if you embrace it and understand that at one level, it’s part of the recovery, and it helps you appreciate the good.
I’m 43 now and about to celebrate five years of being free of cancer. I’m hugely thankful for golf. When I was on the course, I wasn’t a breast-cancer patient, a mother or a colleague. I was blissfully just a golfer. Would you believe that since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve been able to lower my handicap by seven strokes (I’m now a 14)? So cancer definitely improved my game, and there’s no doubt that golf’s enduring lessons saved my life. —with Cory Hansen