Out of the Rough

updated 04/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Until two years ago, Shelley Hamlin's nemesis was the three-foot putt: She had the annoying habit of missing them when she needed them most. But that was before the 43-year-old professional golfer discovered she had breast cancer. In July 1991, two weeks after the diagnosis, Hamlin underwent a mastectomy. Five weeks later she was back on the tour. "I told myself, 'It's not the end of the world, all you've got to do is adapt a little.' "

Adapt she did, winning the Phar-Mor Classic at Inverrary, Fla., in February 1992, her first victory since 1978. It was a gutsy performance, earning her several sportsmanship trophies. With the 1993 season now in its 10th week, Hamlin is off to a slow start but improving.

"Everything I have gone through helped me put the game in perspective," says Hamlin. "I enjoy playing more. And I get better results." Recently she met with correspondent Nancy Matsumoto at her three-bed-room home in Phoenix to discuss her bout with cancer and how it has changed her life.

IN JUNE OF 1990, I FELT ALUMP IN MY left breast and became concerned. It was very big. I was on tour in the East at the time, and the doctor I went to recommended that I see a specialist and have it surgically biopsied. Three weeks later I flew to Fresno, Calif., where my parents live, and went to a doctor there.

After the doctor examined me, he said, "I presume you mean this lump here," indicating a different lump. The first lump was so obvious that I thought I would show my ignorance by saying, "What about this, Doc?" I'll show ignorance in the future. The doctor gave me a local anesthetic and did a surgical biopsy on the lump, which involves cutting into the breast and removing a tissue sample. It turned out to be nothing. I felt relieved and thought. Of course, I'm not a cancer type. So I went on my merry way.

But he told me to come back in six months, so when I was in Fresno for Christmas I made another appointment. By that time he had retired, and a younger doctor had taken over his practice. When Dr. Kelvin Higa examined me, he said, "I don't like this right here," referring to the lump that had bothered me originally. He did a needle biopsy, which involves sticking a skinny needle in the lump and taking out a few cells. The biopsy came out clean, no problem.

In July 1991, I went back to Dr. Higa for a mammogram. It indicated that the lump had grown, and that made him suspicious. He wanted to do a surgical biopsy, which would have required a few days of recovery during which I couldn't play golf. But this time I balked because it was the middle of the season and I didn't want to take time out from the tour. He reluctantly did another needle biopsy.

Dr. Higa called that night and said the needle biopsy had come back clean, but it didn't matter because by then my parents and friends had convinced me that I was stupid to postpone the surgical biopsy. So I made an appointment for 7 a.m. the next day, July 16. Figuring it was just a formality, I made plans to fly home to Phoenix that afternoon. Well, those plans didn't fly. Dr. Higa had just sewn me up when the pathologist came back and said, "This is not good." My doctor, who is marvelous, said, "You mean I have to undo all my beautiful stitching?" He did undo it to locate the tumor. Afterward he said, "I'm sorry, Shelley, but it is cancer, and I really believe you need a mastectomy."

That was the moment. I was shocked and felt very sorry for myself and had a good cry right there. When you hear the word cancer, you think, "Oh my God, I'm going to die tomorrow."

My parents were the first people I told and, oh gosh, were they shook. They're no spring chickens. That was one of the reasons I shaped up quick, because I didn't want them to feel so bad. Next I called Janet Anderson, a fellow golfer who had been staying with me in Phoenix, and asked her to fly to Fresno so she could be with me while I prepared for the operation. The next day I learned the lump was more than 2 cm in diameter. But there was also some good news: The type of cancer I had, infiltrating lobular carcinoma, was a very wimpy type that usually does not spread rapidly. Thankfully, it had not spread to my lymph nodes.

After meeting with my own doctor, I saw two oncologists. All three recommended that I have a modified radical mastectomy, in which the entire breast and lymph nodes are removed but no chest muscle. Once I decided to have the surgery, I felt very relaxed. The thought of losing a breast, however, was not a happy one. I considered my life and the choices I had made. I was concerned that I might not accomplish what I wanted to in the world of golf.

On July 29, I had the surgery. They put you under. When I woke up in the recovery room, I was crying. Afterward I chose not to have the reconstructive surgery because it would have meant a much longer time in recovery and because I didn't like what I had heard about breast implants. But I am left with this definite blank. I look in the mirror and see this little stitching and nothing else, and it makes me very sad.

A month after the operation, I went back on tour and tried to play the Rail Charily Classic in Springfield, Ill. Because I'm right-handed and the affected breast was on my left side, I was able to sustain my swing and mobility.

It was a little bit of a rush, but I had great expectations. I was out to prove that women who have had mastectomies don't have to give up golf. But I shot a terrible first round—a 79 on a par 72 course. Not only did I not do well in that tournament, but later that season the LPGA informed me that I was not playing well enough to maintain my standing on the pro circuit.

To earn back my playing privileges, in October 1991 I had to go to the qualifying school in Daytona Beach. That was ghastly. I only made it by one shot. But by the end of that year I was able to look at golf and say, "Wow, this isn't so tough." I came out with the altitude that I was just going to have more fun.

And that's what I did when I played the Phar-Mor tournament at Inverrary last season. That day an awful lot of people said their prayers were with me. Perhaps there was something to it, because all of my little voices were better and wiser, and I felt calmer. I won the tournament—and $75,OOO—by sinking one of those three-footers. It was my best year ever.

Despite what happened, I consider myself lucky. First, I had a non-aggressive cancer. If I had had an aggressive type, with the amount of time it took me to nail down a diagnosis, it could have been curtains. And I'm lucky because I was able to be treated with drugs instead of chemotherapy. Twice a day I take a new drug called Tamoxifen that prevents the cancer cells from developing by blocking the estrogen they need to multiply and grow. In five years, if I don't have a recurrence, the cancer is considered to be in remission.

I don't really worry about a recurrence. I've always been optimistic—maybe too optimistic. You can hardly fathom that someone who has played pro golf for 21 years and who has won a total of only three tournaments could really believe that every time I tee up I think I will win. But that's the way I feel.

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