Valentine uses golf to cope with cancer

ROCKLAND, Mass. – There are perhaps a thousand explanations as to why he shouldn’t be in work these days – one for every stitch that has been applied to his chest area to close the wounds – but they can’t outnumber the one reason he does show up.

“I have a desire to help people achieve their goals in this game,” T.J. Valentine said. “I have a passion to help people, and what I’ve gone through doesn’t trump that passion.”

OK, so it’s not entirely selfless. He gets a little something out of it, too.

“Every day,” Valentine said, “I learn something from my students. I get positive emotions.”

Now if you’re thinking we all need positive vibes, you’re right. But that’s especially true when you’ve gone through what Valentine, 34, has gone through – only right here, be warned that you might feel embarrassed about that latest “sick” day you may have taken to nurse a head cold. Valentine, you see, bounced into work two weeks ago, one day after having undergone surgery to remove a 6- or 7-inch basal cell from his chest, a procedure that required 150 stitches.

And that was just the latest surgery, too. There had been several in January and February, with so many stitches layered onto his chest and stomach “that I look like I’ve been in a knife fight,” Valentine said with a laugh.

The skin cancer, you see, has not dented his wonderful demeanor.

“The doctors and nurses said, ‘You’re not going to work, are you?’ ” Valentine said. “I said I was, because I’m so busy. They shook their heads. They said, ‘You better not swing.’ ”

He hasn’t – at least not yet. But that’s fine, because his motivation has long since transferred from competing to teaching. And with a long and harsh winter hopefully giving way to spring weather in the Boston area, Valentine’s students at the Harmon Club and Fitness Club are anxious to get going.

“They make me feel important,” he said. “Besides, what option do I have? To sit around?”

That’s not a position from which you can fight, so T.J. Valentine has stood tall and looked the illness in the eye. “It’s not a big deal,” he told his father, Jeff, though deep down they know otherwise. T.J.’s mother, Donna, and grandfather both died of cancer, so when a doctor’s visit in December to address kidney stones revealed a suspicious mark on his chest, Valentine didn’t hesitate.

“That doctor sent me to another doctor and I had it removed, only the doctor kept noticing others. He said, ‘You’ve got a lot going on here. Next thing I knew, I was having a bunch of biopsies all day.”

Now it was just six years ago when Valentine laughingly said he “slipped through the cracks” and earned a spot on the fourth edition of The Golf Channel’s “Big Break,” but truth be told, that show title could more aptly describe the way he views his fortunes given how this health saga has unfolded. If it weren’t for the kidney stone, Valentine never would have been alerted to the skin cancer and further examinations would never have revealed a rare, pre-cancerous polyp.

“You go from feeling like a healthy, invincible individual to all of a sudden hearing the doctor throw around the ‘C’ word,” Valentine said. “You’re frightened.”

What entered the picture at about that point was, well, life. His wife, Katy, gave birth to the couple’s first child, daughter Kylin, just before T.J. had the first of his surgeries. “It’s been awesome since she was born,” he said. “She has kept a smile on my face.”

But Valentine does not underestimate the aura of golf in this story, either. It is a sport he always has loved, though baseball for years just edged out golf when it came to igniting his competitive fires. At Bryant University in Rhode Island, Valentine chose the diamond instead of the links but shortly upon graduation, guess what pulled at him relentlessly?

Golf.

Having landed at the Harmon Club, which has a nine-hole course but is at its very core a teaching and practice facility for people committed to the game, Valentine’s reputation as an instructor has grown. More than 10 years into the business and Valentine will tell you he’s gotten something out of it every day, though never more so than since this skin cancer ordeal started. That’s because he credits golf with helping him cope.

“We know golf is such a mind game and (this has reinforced) that the mind is a powerful thing,” Valentine said. “The things I talk about with my students to help them get better in golf help me get better in (this process). You tell them they have to stay positive over a shot. Well, I have to stay positive.”

He has done that, and along the way he has inspired his colleagues and students at the Harmon Club, most of whom were speechless when Valentine strolled into work just two weeks ago, the day after having his most recent surgery. He smiled at them all and went about his business.

There has also been a new window opened in his life, one he has graciously accepted.

“If I can do anything to bring awareness to this, I will,” Valentine said. “If out of this ordeal I can help even a couple of people, it would be wonderful. I don’t care about the stitches; I’m happy with who I am. I just know I’m very, very lucky.”

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