In hospital corridors they are known as procedures, medical events so horrifying that even doctors prefer euphemism. In her young life Heather Farr had six different procedures, some of them more than once. There was a modified radical mastectomy, a breast reconstruction, a bone-marrow transplant, chemotherapy, radiation and a spinal stereotactic radiosurgery. There were additional procedures that were somewhat more peripheral to her cancer treatment, such as a 15½-hour surgery to remove a vertebrae-eating tumor that would have strangled her spinal cord and could have paralyzed her. There were surgeries to relieve brain hemorrhages, surgery to remove a breast implant that had hardened and was causing hemorrhaging, eight surgeries just last month to halt persistent internal bleeding.
The accumulated trauma—delivered intermittently since her cancer was discovered 4½ years ago, but lately accelerated until it became one blurred period of intensive care—finally killed her last week. Once one of the LPGA's most promising stars, she died, more or less indirectly, of her breast cancer. Heather Farr's small body, hollowed and scooped too often by too many teams of surgeons, just gave out. Bodies subjected to so many procedures often do.
She died young, of course. She was just 28. But, odd to say, she did not die unlucky. She was surrounded by family—her parents, her sister, her husband of eight months—in a hospital near her Phoenix home. The women's golf tour, which honors her annually with a pro-am fund-raiser and daily with caps emblazoned with the phrase CONQUER THE MOUNTAIN, happened to be in town over the weekend too. That was a minor but intriguing serendipity. Though removed from the LPGA tour for more than four years, Heather Farr was not apart from it even in death. More than a dozen of her fellow golfers were at the hospital when she died on Saturday night.
Did not die unlucky, we say. Well, that is an arrogance only the living can afford. Surely it is a terrible thing to watch such a talent lapse toward death, procedure by procedure, until the golf club waved once with such astonishing charisma finally becomes somebody else's...memento. Her game, which was just beginning to boom when she first felt a lump in her breast, is now just a footnote to the tour, a catalyst for fund-raising in the fight against cancer. What is it to be married amid the promise of remission, with hopes of a purposeful life and an activism that could become more meaningful than any Sara Lee endorsement contract ever was, and then to die? Where is luck in any of this? The tidiness of Heather Farr's life—16 carefully tended rosebushes at her home, which rests hard by a golf course—was mocked by the chaos of cancer. Did not die unlucky?
November 29, 1993
But Farr never thought of her cancer as unlucky, and would not have considered her death to be so. She was not so stoic that she never cried at bad news—and she got so much of it—but she didn't permit much self-pity. As she fought from procedure to procedure, she suffered little remorse over the loss of her once flourishing career. She let it go, the money and the fame. Once, passing through her small house, she stopped to show a visitor one of the few artifacts she retained from her golf days. It was a picture, a favorite one, of her teeing off. "See the yardage chart flapping in my back pocket?" she said. The detail arrested her somehow. "And look at that ponytail!" On a rare introspective day, as she faced yet another round of chemotherapy the next week, that moment passed for self-pity. She missed her hair.
Mostly she knew, and she preached, that her condition was not unique or special. Frighteningly, it was actually a commonplace. "One in nine," she told you. Perhaps your fiancèe, your daughter, your sister would get breast cancer. One in nine did. A lot of them, with cancers diagnosed as late as hers, would die too. Just because they did was no reason to feel that life was unlucky or unfair.
"Life's not fair to anybody," she said in an interview last year, having just learned of more spots on her skull and pelvic area and having scheduled yet more procedures. "Sometimes you just have to get a grip. Do you know what's not fair? My second year on the tour, I didn't make a check for eight weeks. And the ninth week, when I did make a check? It was for $500." She laughed at the story. "You just play through."
It was that determination, not the luck of natural talent, that had given her a career in golf in the first place. Certainly her life in the sport had begun without much promise. In her first match, when she was just nine, she was paired with a kid named Billy Mayfair, now a pro. He was none too friendly, either. Standing ahead of her on the tee, he told her to hurry up and hit it. "I don't know where this is going," she said. He told her to just hurry up and hit it. So she did. She doubled him over with a drive right into his stomach. "Boy, did he whine," she said, laughing at the memory.
Sometime after that her game took off. She was Arizona amateur champion at the age of 13, a PGA junior winner at 17, a college star at Arizona State at 19, a two-time All-America. She qualified for the tour on her first attempt—she was just 20.
By her third year as a pro she was 41st on the money list, with a lucrative endorsement contract, an unlimited future. It was not accidental or God-given. "When she first came on the tour," remembers former pro Mary Bryan, "nobody worked harder. Heather was determined to do well."
Still, after she felt that lump in 1988, she became better known for her sickness than she ever was for her golf game. She did not attract a morbid interest, though. It was just that her fight, what she had to do or maybe just chose to do, was so shocking in its gravity and its detail. Perhaps many cancer patients suffer similarly as they choose aggressive treatments. But the particulars, as we came to learn them of this public figure, were scarifying enough to make her endurance riveting.
Her first treatments, after her breast and lymph nodes were removed in 1989, caused nausea and hair loss, common consequences. Eleven months after her first chemotherapy treatments had ended, more tumors were discovered. She chose to attack them with a bone-marrow transplant, but before it could be scheduled, a tumor would have to be removed from her spine. That surgery left her with a seven-inch rod in her back and with more or less constant pain. And even after the transplant had been done—it demanded a chemotherapy so toxic it impaired her hearing and caused her to vomit for three months after she returned home—available statistics promised no better than a 50% chance of survival.
And after each procedure, new spots would show. Even after the transplant, the tumor on her skull remained. In the summer of 1991 it was removed. Three months after that a spot was discovered on her hip. More radiation therapy. Still, five months after, in February 1992, undaunted, she announced she would return to the tour in 1993.
She was never able to, of course. In the spring of 1992 doctors found cancerous lesions on her skull and pelvis, a discovery that not only interrupted plans to rejoin the tour but also threw her wedding plans with Goran Lingmerth, a former NFL kicker, into disarray. Another procedure was required, more radiation, after which, undaunted still, she did indeed marry.
But the window of remission never opened fully for Farr, and there was never a stretch of normalcy for her. Doctors apprised her of their gruesome discoveries and demanded yet more procedures. Last August doctors performed emergency surgery to remove a breast implant that had hardened. In September she underwent an X-ray procedure to destroy another cancerous tumor on her spine. In October she had a series of operations to stop internal bleeding and to reconstruct her chest wall. And in November, a day before Farr was to be sent home for additional treatment, a doctor in California told her he'd discovered a new hematoma. "If she doesn't fall apart now," her mother, Sharon, told The Orange County Register at the time, "she never will." She didn't fall apart and did finally get back to Arizona, where she died, racked by seizures and hemorrhages, several procedures later.
It is difficult, maybe impossible, to make sense of Heather Farr's life and death. It would be much easier to extract a lesson had she somehow survived. But she didn't, and her agonies and disappointments seem all the more terrible without the payoff of old age. She played through it, all right, and for what? Just so the rest of us would get a glimpse of the upper threshold of hope?
About all you can say for sure is she's gone and that her long bouncy stride down the fairway will be forever missed. About that stride: She knew people laughed at it, the way she rushed off the tee, a walk too exaggerated to be simply purposeful, hurried enough to be comic. But she couldn't help it. Long ago her father had told her that she would have to try—try doubly hard—to keep up if she wanted to play with the older, much taller guys, guys like Billy Mayfair. They would leave her behind if she didn't. So you must picture, if you can, the tiny figure, just 5'1", given reprieve from her procedures, bounding down the fairway at a ridiculous pace. Heather Farr, playing through.