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The news that changes everything

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The news that changes everything

For TOUR pros Stewart Cink and Ryan Palmer, it was a gut punch to learn their wives had breast cancer – and an opportunity to offer love and support

    Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour

    Ryan Palmer had been checking his smart phone all day, sneaking glances between shots during the RBC Canadian Open Pro-Am last year to see if his wife Jennifer had called.

    She was back home in Texas, waiting for the results of a biopsy. A mammogram the previous week had uncovered an abnormality that doctors felt warranted a closer examination.

    Not until that evening, when Ryan was having dinner with his caddie James Edmondson and some friends, did Jennifer finally reach him. He stepped outside the restaurant to take the call.

    The news was not good. Jennifer had stage 2A invasive ductal carcinoma.

    “It just hits you in the gut,” Ryan recalls, the memory clearly still fresh.

    Ryan’s fellow PGA TOUR pro, Stewart Cink, also knows what it’s like to get that sucker punch. Only he was at home in Atlanta after forgetting to commit to the Zurich Classic last year, his first such gaffe in 20 years on TOUR. His wife Lisa delivered the news to him in person.

    “Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, that was God’s hand,” Lisa now says.

    She had gone in for a follow-up appointment early that week. She hadn’t felt a lump in her breast. She just thought something wasn’t “right.” The doctors agreed – in fact, Lisa had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy all in one day.

    “She told me afterwards that the mood in there was really serious and somber and not very upbeat at all,” Stewart said.

    The next day, the phone rang. Stewart and Lisa were meeting with the staff of their charitable foundation. This time, it was Lisa who stepped outside.

    Within seconds, Stewart followed her onto the front porch. Lisa had written some things in a notebook, and then she looked up at her husband, clutching the phone to her chest.

    “She said, I want to know my grandchildren,” Stewart recalls. “And there was not a lot more for her to say. I knew what that meant.”

    Lisa, who had led an extremely healthy lifestyle, has stage 4 invasive ductal carcinoma. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and was metastatic.

    With those two diagnoses, life for the Cinks and Palmers has changed forever.

    Stewart and Lisa met in high school. He was going out with a girl she played softball with – “He dated a lot of my friends, actually, which was interesting,” Lisa says – and the two eventually ended up in a class together where they became better acquainted.

    Their friendship blossomed into romance at Georgia Tech, and the two married at age 20. They have one son, Connor, who was born while the couple was still in college, and another Reagan, who is two years younger.

    Stewart and Lisa are empty nesters now. Connor graduated from Clemson last year while Reagan has followed in his parents’ footsteps and attends Georgia Tech. He’ll be a junior in the fall.

    “Do the math – we’ve been married over half our lives,” says Stewart, who’s now 43, as is his wife. “I feel like she’s been my soulmate before we ever met in 10th grade. She’s been part of me since birth, I feel like.”

    Ryan and Jennifer also met in high school in their hometown of Amarillo. But it wasn’t until the summer before her senior year at Texas A&M -- Ryan was a year behind -- that they began dating.

    “I saw him out at a party or something, and then he called me and said, hey, let’s go have dinner and play some golf,” Jennifer remembers. “I’m actually a terrible golfer, so I mainly just sat in the cart but that’s pretty much how it all began.”

    Jennifer was first attracted to Ryan’s smile – “He just lights up a room,” she says – and his positive attitude. He didn’t dwell on a bad round. He didn’t blame it on his clubs, either.

    Ryan was motivated, too.

    “It was never an option for him not to be a professional,” she says. “You know what I’m saying? That was his goal.”

    Jennifer had goals of her own, too, though. She graduated from A&M in 1998 and went to dental school, getting her degree in 2003. She practiced in Colleyville, a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb, for a while and still keeps her license current.

    Ryan finally got his TOUR card for the 2004 campaign, and he asked Jennifer to come to Pebble Beach with him. The couple married in June of that year.

    “After that week, he just said, ‘hey, do you want to try this full time?’” she remembers. “We didn’t really know what the future was going to hold golf-wise. So, we basically took a leap of faith.”

    Although they are similar in age, Stewart and Ryan were at different stages of life last year when their wives were diagnosed with cancer three months apart.

    While the Cinks’ boys are grown and living on their own, Jennifer and Ryan have two young children. Mason is 10, a huge hockey fan, while Madelyn turns 8 in August.

    After Ryan got that life-changing phone call from Jennifer, he wanted to come home immediately. She convinced him to stay in Canada, though. After all, there was nothing he could do; it wasn’t like she was having surgery the next day, and RBC, after all, is one of Ryan’s sponsors.

    The couple went to the PGA Championship where Ryan finished 42nd and then returned home where Jennifer had a lumpectomy. A week later, while Ryan was playing The Barclays (now called THE NORTHERN TRUST), they got the news that the cancer, already invasive in the breast, had spread into the lymph nodes.

    So Jennifer started chemotherapy on Sept. 19, the week after Ryan was eliminated from the FedExCup Playoffs at the BMW Championship despite a tie for fourth at Crooked Stick. It was also his 40th birthday.

    “He still got to have a fun little party the weekend before,” Jennifer says. “We had it in the works for several months so we went ahead and had the party.”

    Had Ryan made it to the TOUR Championship, Jennifer said she likely would have waited to start the chemo. At that point, though, Ryan announced on the Ryan Palmer Foundation Facebook page that he was taking time off to be with Jennifer and their kids.

    “He has a lot of family and friends and supporters who follow that so he just felt like that would be a good way for us to get prayer,” Jennifer says.

    Ryan did not play on TOUR again for four months, returning to competition at the Sony Open in Hawaii earlier this year.

    Mr. Mom did a “fabulous” job, Jennifer says. He got the kids ready in the morning, often making Mason’s favorite, an omelet, for breakfast and took the kids to school. Although friends put together a meal train three nights a week, Ryan was more than happy to throw a few steaks on the grill, which is his specialty.

    While he did take time to play some golf, hoping to stay sharp for his return, Ryan also pitched in and did some light housework, helping Jennifer’s mom -- who lives nearby -- keep things tidy when the chemo took its toll. Turns out he’s a rare bird who actually likes to do laundry, too.

    “That’s what I needed to do,” Ryan says. “I was blessed that I was able to stay home the whole time.”

    “There were times when I said just go play this week, you should go get some competitive rounds in and he said, no, this is where I need to be, this is where I want to be,” adds Jennifer. “… It was something he really wanted to do for our family.”

    Stewart and Lisa had been looking forward to this time in their lives. With both sons essentially on their own, the couple was planning to travel the world as Stewart, the 2009 Open Championship winner, played golf.

    Turns out, that’s exactly what they’ve done, although always on Lisa’s schedule. “There’s not a lot I want to do without her,” Cink says.

    The first week of chemo – she had nine rounds administered through a port in her chest – is usually the worst. The second was a “maybe,” Stewart says, and by the third, Lisa usually felt like her old self.

    The first treatment was May 9, 2016.

    Three weeks later – “We kind of went to three-week months,” Stewart notes – he decided to play at the DEAN & DELUCA Invitational. Lisa had friends visiting in Atlanta and family, including the boys, nearby. So he went to Fort Worth by himself.

    He shot rounds of 72-75 and missed the cut.

    “I learned really fast that I wasn’t ready to be out there,” says Stewart, who purposely arrived on Wednesday so he could avoid some of the inevitable, albeit well-meaning, questions from his peers. He admits both he and Lisa were “emotionally wrecked.”

    Two weeks later, though, Lisa felt well enough to go with her husband to the FedEx St. Jude Classic. The change of scene was good for them both, and Lisa has made new friends as well as connected with the old.

    “I just don’t think the house would be a good place to be for a long, long time when you’re going through something like this,” Stewart says. “Those four walls start to close pretty fast.”

    In an interview with PGA TOUR Entertainment for a special on the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where her doctors are based, Lisa said she wasn’t surprised her husband put his golf on hold to focus on her.

    “That’s who he is, and it’s the relationship we’ve been blessed with,” Lisa explained. “And of course, it meant everything to me. I don’t know how people do it alone.”

    The weeks at home allowed Stewart to go with Lisa to her various appointments and treatments. Understanding what is about to happen gives him some semblance of control.

    “Sometimes when she’s emotional, it’s hard to hear correctly, decipher what the doctor is saying,” Stewart explains.

    “So my role is to take down notes and ask questions and get facts straight so that later on, when she sort of takes deep breaths and can understand it, we can have a conversation and I can kind of spit it back the right way.”

    Lisa says her husband was a great “filter” for what he calls a “firehose of information.” She was told not to Google treatments or symptoms, which she thinks is great advice. “But he was so good about hearing the information, researching the information, and giving it to me as I asked or he thought I needed it,” she says.

    Long walks through the old neighborhood near the Rice University campus helped the couple “sort through all this immense amount of terrible information we were getting,” Lisa says. Also helpful was mindless entertainment like the shows on HGTV that they both like to watch, and the family and friends who gathered in Houston to lend support.

    “We had every stool, bench, chair (occupied),” she says.

    A year later, as the couple lives with the disease, Stewart has become the de facto spokesman for the family. There are many times when he feels helpless -- “Hence, the faith,” Stewart says, adding that he has a list of Bible verses to rely on – and he finds it therapeutic to talk about Lisa’s situation.

    “It makes me feel like you care about it, for one thing,” Stewart says. “That’s a good feeling. You find that when you’re discussing it, you’re not thinking about the future, you kind of talk about what you already know.

    “It kind of keeps me a little bit grounded in the present.”

    Like Lisa, Jennifer had chemo, six rounds in her case, once every three weeks. Ryan and her friend, Jennifer Hill, who came up from San Antonio, went to every treatment. They weren’t just there for moral support, though – the two had a mission.

    So that she wouldn’t lose her long dark hair, Jennifer opted to use cold caps to try to cool the scalp during the chemotherapy. It wasn’t that she was vain. She was worried about Mason.

    “Mason got a little upset thinking about it,” Ryan says. “She did the hair preservation for him. So, that was pretty special.”

    The caps are housed in dry ice and cooled to between minus-15 to minus-40 degrees below zero, measured by an infrared thermometer. The caps have to be handled with gloves and changed every 30 minutes – for eight hours straight.

    That’s where Ryan and Hill came in.

    “They had to knead them with their hands to make sure all the gel was evenly distributed, and get them to the right temperature,” Jennifer says. “Then they’d have a timer and they’d take that one off and put the new one on.”

    It worked. With the exception of a few bald spots under her hair, Jennifer says you’d never know she was a breast cancer survivor. Most importantly, Mason was reassured.

    No matter how weak or nauseous Jennifer felt while undergoing the chemo or radiation, she got up and got dressed every day. She even made sure she put makeup on.

    “If you can, you want to try and be as normal as possible for your kids,” she said. “You don’t want them to feel like you’re sick. It’s just a difficult subject for a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old to grasp.

    “My son wanted very concrete answers. He wanted it to be black and white, not gray, and so when we couldn’t give him an exact reason as to why I had it, it was very hard for him.”

    Ryan was amazed at his wife’s strength.

    “She did more things than I could imagine her doing,” he says. And he was glad he could be there to reassure the kids.

    “In case they had questions, we were there to talk about it together,” he adds. “Of course, their fears were the worst. Obviously, Mason’s was. But the main thing is just letting them know nothing is going to happen.

    “Don’t think the worst because it’s going to be OK.”

    Last fall, Jennifer was able to go with Ryan and their families to see him inducted into the Texas A&M Sports Hall of Fame. She also took a three-day trip to New York City after Christmas and before her final chemo treatment on January 3.

    “It was kind of like a let’s celebrate that we’re through this one step,” Jennifer says. “(It was) a lot of walking, but I kept up with it.”

    When Stewart didn’t qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs last year, he and Lisa went to Switzerland on a busman’s holiday of sorts when he played in a European Tour event.

    “And I could not believe that in the middle of chemo, I'm getting to go to Switzerland and see this beautiful, just breathtaking place,” Lisa said. “And meet these kind, wonderful people that we got to meet and it was such a blessing.”

    Stewart and Ryan played together at the CareerBuilder Challenge and picked each other’s brains about life with cancer. Their wives have been in contact, too, texting prayers and positive thoughts.

    “I think they’ve been great for each other,” Ryan said.

    And at times, the support the couples have felt from friends on the PGA TOUR has been overwhelming. Flowers, cards, texts and phone calls have helped make the journey easier. Meagan Laird, Martin’s wife, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, even arranged dinners for the Palmer’s meal train.

    “She’s doing all this from out of town,” Jennifer says. “Isn’t that crazy?”

    Zach Johnson’s wife, Kim, had a quilt made with a small pocket in the back where friends of Stewart and Lisa left spiritual messages. Lisa took the quilt with her to PET scans and was able to “know that these people have prayed for me.”

    And when Lisa went out to Memphis, her first tournament since being diagnosed, the PGA TOUR Wives Association had a special surprise at their annual event at the St. Jude Children’s Hospital. The kids at the hospital had made cards and posters for her.

    “I just couldn't imagine why these children, there are having to suffer, they're pouring out love on me,” Lisa says. “And it was such a gift and it was such an encouragement to know how strong these children were.

    “It gave me a lot of encouragement that I can do this, too.”

    There has been good news of late.

    Jennifer’s latest mammogram was clear, Ryan reported, and her treatments, which included radiation, will be done in August.

    Stewart wrote this in his blog on May 8: Amen! PET scan results looked good again today, basically unchanged from the past two, from November and February. Lisa is now in what the doctor called "sustained remission.”

    Cink and Palmer are in the field this week at Colonial. After an emotionally draining year for both men, their wives and their families, a few hours on the golf course each day now offers a chance to step back into their old lives. Their thoughts, however, will never stray far from Lisa and Jennifer and the battle against the toughest of foes.

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