Cinks’ strategy for battling cancer: ‘Remain grateful every day’

When Stewart Cink arrived at the course here last Tuesday afternoon, later than most competing in the RSM Classic, the casual witness might have assumed he was just coming off his second major championship.

On the range, in the clubhouse, fellow pros heaped congratulations upon him at every turn. And he answered each with the brightest kind of victory gleam.

In an important way, there had been a big, fat, major W. The Cinks — Stewart and Lisa — are always a little on edge when they leave their home at Sugarloaf in Duluth and travel to Houston for the next checkup. What will the scan show this time? The unknown and the wide range of possibilities that hide in that darkness weigh heavily. That Monday before the tournament was no different.

But as Stewart wrote on the Nov. 15 entry in Lisa’s CaringBridge online journal: “What we learned is that her cancer has been suppressed to a level of near dormancy, what medical team refers to as ‘best response.’”

As he said later that day at the course, “It went really well. It was good. It was kind of a milestone, I think.”

It was no mere coincidence that Cink shot a career-best 8-under 62 in the first round of the RSM. Relief is the most effective swing aid.

On April 27, shortly after celebrating her 43rd birthday, Lisa Cink got the phone call informing her the mammogram showed something suspicious. Diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, she, along with her husband, were hurled into a cycle of treatment that alternated between hospitals in Atlanta and Houston. As Lisa dealt every three weeks with the effects of the harsh medicines pumped into the port near her shoulder, Stewart put his golfing ambitions mostly on hold.

His schedule would no longer be determined by which tournament suited him, but by where his wife was on the roller coaster of treatment.

For now, the chemo part is finished, after nine sessions. More treatments to fight the cancer on a hormonal level are on the books.

As Stewart said, “She had a great report (Monday), but it doesn’t even come close to meaning that this is over. It’s not over. It’s going to be a life-long (challenge) for her and that’s really difficult to grasp.”

As a 20-year-plus campaigner and six-time winner on the PGA Tour since leaving Georgia Tech — and the winner of the 2009 British Open — Cink is the one accustomed to laying out the triumphs and trials for public inspection. And he is the one now acting as the middleman between his wife’s cancer and concerned fans and friends.

Their support has been at times overwhelming. Last week, Lisa mentioned to Golfweek one kindness that has touched her most of all — a quilt given her with messages of encouragement from a wide range of pros and caddies.

Stewart sat down last week and spoke at length about the intrusion of cancer, his wife’s strength, the power of faith and where golf now fits in the grand, redrawn picture.

Asked whether he thought it would be appropriate to pair a story about fighting a dread disease with Thanksgiving — a time reserved for counting blessings — Cink without hesitation said, “Absolutely. One of our biggest goals as a couple has been to remain grateful every day — and really every second — we’re taking breaths.

“It has really been an eye-opener for us, just how precious this life is and how grateful we are to have been given that gift. If you had to pick one word for a theme for us during this battle we’ve had with Lisa, the one word would be ‘grateful.’”

So, here is the bulk of that conversation, offered in a spirit that spits in the eye of cancer:

Q: What is your new normal now?

A: What's normal now: If she feels well and there's a tournament I'm going to get in, access-wise, I'll play. My schedule will be relatively normal and she'll go with me.

But if she is not that well, then I just won’t play. I don’t want to go and leave her at home. I just don’t feel right when I’m not there with her. I feel like I’m her main care-giver and if something were to go wrong, I couldn’t deal with that. I don’t plan on that being the case. With this next phase of the treatment she’s going into now, we don’t know what the side effects are going to be. They should be less, based on historical information. So that means more freedom to kind of make schedules.

(Cink, 43, indeed has begun playing more, the RSM representing his fourth event in just more than a month. And one of his most encouraging finishes: a 10th-place tie. From May through October, he had appeared in only five tournaments).

Q: When a calamity like this strikes, doesn’t it seem to reconfigure everything about how you lead life? How difficult has the loss of control been for the two of you?

A: You kind of do sacrifice control. You don't want to let it be the winner, either. You kind of want to make sure it doesn't become your ruler. Then you have to concede that it has won over you.

(Getting out on Tour) is what she wants. It’s our empty nest year (son Connor is a senior at Clemson, son Reagan a Georgia Tech sophomore). This is what we were planning on doing all this time, traveling to tournaments, just the two of us, kind of carefree. We’re still doing the best we can with that. We’re living the life we planned it to be and golf tournaments fill in there a little bit. Treatments fill in there a little bit.

Q: It seems almost frivolous to ask about golf when you are dealing with a much weightier issue. But how has this affected your effort to reclaim your game? (Cink has had but two top 10 finishes since 2014.)

A: At first it was rough because we were still trying to get our feet under us as far as what the impact was going to be on her physically. I prioritized all that over golf. When I came back and started playing a few tournaments after the break, I was just very un-sharp. When I got out in tournament play, I was making mistakes that weren't related to form. They were related to competitive rust. Like short-siding a wedge or hitting a 50-yard chip 65 yards, the stuff that turns a 67 into a 71. Now that I've been able to play a little bit more, I've kind of been able to eliminate some of those.

Q: What has Lisa’s advice been about handling your golf through all of this?

A: She was really great early on. She made it clear that she wanted me to carry on working and practicing, even when I wasn't in tournaments. She wanted me to be getting myself ready to play every week even though I might not be playing. She knows I love doing that. That's not just part of my job, it's a part of who I am, grinding and getting ready for golf and trying to eliminate mistakes and try to get a little bit better every day here and there. She knows that's what I like to pursue.

She’s never been a very selfish person. So, that’s one of the first things she was concerned about. She wanted me to be like good to go. She doesn’t like people to dote on her although that’s all I can do now is dote on her. I want to dote.

Q: It sounds as if Lisa is determined not to be defined as a patient, as someone whose identity is that of a cancer sufferer.

A: What she wants to do is be defined as someone who’s healed. I don’t think the sick thing bothers her as far as the perception of other people. The healed part, she really wants people to see our faith.

We know people will look at us and wonder how we handle hardships. We’re Christians. We’re not only trying to be a good example for that but we’re using that. It’s our main tool in fighting cancer. And so that’s what I think she wants to be seen as. She wants to be seen as someone who was healed and be a real light in the world for that.

Q: That’s a lot deeper than talking about making bogey on No. 6.

A: Yeah it is. But bogeys still stink.

Q: You have been married seemingly forever (Cink was a married father of one while at Tech). Anything new you’ve learned about Lisa through this?

A: I thought I knew it all. She has handled this the same way I hope I would handle it if it happened to me. She has been like the perfect mix of supportive and supported. She still is supporting her own friends because she knows they are emotionally troubled by this whole thing. She feels like she is kind of a mother hen to them. But she's also letting them mother-hen her a little bit. Which is great because I didn't think she'd do that.

She had the best attitude about going to her chemotherapy. We always have friends go. The nurses roll their eyes when we come in because they know we’re going to have like five people every time and no one else has more than one. And we’re in there laughing and we bring cheese and make a little picnic out of it. Everybody is in good spirits.

Q: Will there still be picnics now that the treatments have been shortened a bit?

A: Oh, yeah. Just less cheese.

Q: With all this going on, how have you reconfigured your golf goals for this year?

A: I know who I am, I know what I have to offer. And I want to let myself dictate how I play golf and not let golf dictate how I am about myself. For so long in my career, I've let golf dictate how I feel about myself. When you put your hope and your faith and your trust into something that's unpredictable like golf, you're just painting yourself into the frustration corner. I'm tired of that.

I’m too fortunate to be able to be a pro golfer for this long and do this job to act like that with myself — on the inside. You’d never know it watching me, but on the inside … those days are in the past. My goal is to look back at the end of the year and say, “This year, I was the boss out there. I dictated how I felt on the course. I don’t want to let the circumstances sway me from that.

Q:”Finally, you said that the one word you’d use when summarizing the theme for the past year is grateful. I could think of a couple others. Like angry. Or resentful.

A: No, not at all. God has sent trials to people throughout history. Sometimes it takes something like that to sharpen people. I thought I was pretty sharp in my faith before this and I think Lisa would admit the same thing. But looking back now, I know how far off I was and how self-centered I was. It has really changed the landscape of our life and I mean that in a spiritual way, too.

It has meant the world to us. It has brought us closer. We don’t bicker about the little crap we used to bicker about. We care for each other so much now and it all points to gratitude. We are so thankful to be given something, even if it’s cancer, we’re grateful to have something to sharpen us like this.

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