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Early Detection Helped Brower Get Back on Course

Golf: LPGA career of Villa Park High graduate has been set back by numerous ailments, but timely treatment led to her heading off breast cancer.

April 12, 2001|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laurie Brower first felt the lump last May.

She was putting on her sports bra in the locker room at the LPGA Corning Classic and it didn't fit quite right.

At first, she couldn't believe it. She'd already had so many setbacks in her career.

There was the wrist injury that forced her to withdraw from her first qualifying school in 1986. There was her mother's long battle with cancer and a brain tumor before she died in 1990.

She had the cysts on her ovaries and then tore muscles in her arm. Then there was the bladder problem in 1998 that took nearly two years to diagnose and treat.

When she felt the lump, she just shook her head.

Brower, 37, a Villa Park High graduate who begins play today at the LPGA Office Depot Hosted by Amy Alcott at Wilshire Country Club, had finished tied for 22nd in the Corning Classic, her best finish in two years.

"I was in the best shape I'd been in," Brower said. "I was feeling good, feeling strong and played three tournaments and then had the lump. I was just like, 'You've got to be kidding.' "

She asked other players in the locker room if anybody knew about lumps. They told her she should get it checked.

Brower wanted to ignore the advice. She wanted to keep playing golf. After all she had been through and all the time she had already missed, she felt she deserved some time on the course.

But good judgment got the better of her. While walking through the airport on the way to the next tournament, Brower saw a plane headed for Dallas, where she lives.

On the spot, she switched her itinerary and got on that plane. She saw a doctor the next day, had an ultrasound and then a needle biopsy two days later.

"I was told right after the biopsy that they needed to go in," Brower said. "I said 'Whoa, whoa, I've got things to do. I've got to play golf.' It happened so fast."

The doctor had found lesions that were in the beginning stages of cancer. It had already turned black and they told Brower that it was a matter of two weeks, a month, maybe three months before it would have turned into full-fledged cancer.

Normally, the lump would have been monitored for six months or a year, but the doctor ordered a biopsy because her mother had had cancer.

"They said if it had been anybody else they we would have told them to come back in a year because they didn't think the lump was anything," Brower said. "But because I was a high risk and there was cancer in my family, they went the next step further. I got lucky with this."

Early detection may have saved Brower, and she intends to join fellow LPGA Tour players in preaching the values of self examinations.

Val Skinner, who stood by and watched as good friend and fellow tour player Heather Farr fell victim to breast cancer, has spearheaded the effort to raise awareness.

She has organized a charity event in New Jersey to raise money for the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The tournament raised more than $500,000 last year, the largest single donation to the foundation.

She said cases like Brower's must be used as a way to show people the dangers of the disease.

"We're trying to elevate awareness to a whole other level," Skinner said. "We want everyone to know that if it can happen to healthy women athletes, then it can happen to anyone."

After playing only five events, Brower sat out the rest of last year recovering. It was the third consecutive year her season had been limited by medical problems.

She played a total of 19 events in 1998 and 1999 because of a bladder disorder. Getting the proper diagnosis was part of the problem. Her symptoms included severe dehydration and fatigue. She was constantly urinating and had trouble with her vision. She lost 20 pounds and couldn't figure out why.

Doctors called it depression, Epstein Barr, diabetes and AIDS. They blamed rare bug bites and lead poisoning.

"You name it, they said I had it," Brower said.

Finally, she got an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

"Within three days I was like a brand new person," Brower said.

With all she has been through, Brower has an amazingly upbeat outlook. She has not made a cut this year and finished in the top 10 only once in the last four years, but insists there is still some golf left in her.

"It's frustrating because I haven't reached my potential, but it seems like something just keeps happening that keeps me from getting there," Brower said. "It's hard when you know you can be better at what you're doing and you're not doing it. It's kind of like, you've got to look inside and figure out why can't you get there? What is it you're missing."

Gary Brower, Laurie's father, said that's the way his daughter has always been.

"She is the kind of person who just gets through the tough times," he said. "She doesn't ask for sympathy or anything, she knows how to handle things herself. She'll fight through anything."

Tat Shiely, Brower's caddie, said Brower's strong will has helped her overcome all her adversity.

"When those types of things happen to you, you can go two ways," Shiely said. "She took the positive road."

For Brower, there was no other option.

"You can't keep me down," she said. "I'll keep fighting, I'll keep pushing. What am I going to do, give up? You can't give up."

A lot has changed on tour since Brower last played full time and some of her friends welcomed her back with hugs, then started laughing at her.

"Everyone has got all this new equipment," she said. "They were laughing at me with my old stuff. They were telling me I needed to get with the times."

If adjusting to new equipment is the biggest obstacle Brower needs to overcome, she will take it.

"That'll be a good year," she said.

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