EAST LANSING, Mich.- Michigan State redshirt senior golfer Jacqueline Setas sat calmly in the clubhouse a few weeks ago, waiting patiently with her teammates for the weather to change.
It was past her tee-off time for the Mary Fossum Invitational at Forest Akers golf course. A thick late summer fog suffocated the course, prompting the delay.
For some golfers, an interruption of their match day routine could be nerve-wracking.
But not for Setas, who uses her recent experience fighting cancer as valuable perspective on life.
“I’d say I’m more excited,” Setas, 22, said about playing golf. “I’m kind of handling nerves a lot better now, since I know what I could be doing instead.”
The Fossum Invitational marked Setas’ return to playing competitive golf for the Spartans, as she is now in remission from Hodgkins’ lymphoma and has regained her strength.
Going from a healthy college student-athlete to a cancer patient taught Setas perspective on time.
She waited with her family in the doctor’s office to hear if the results of her blood scans and biopsy revealed cancer. She waited in her infusion chair, as she got another dose of chemotherapy. And she waited, back in the same doctor’s office where her long journey started, to hear she was officially cancer free.
She waited, over a year, to get her chance to compete for Michigan State again. She knew she was only a few months removed from her cancer treatments.
A few more minutes, waiting through the fog, could not ruin what this day meant for her.
“I guess golf is just a lot more fun for me now,” said Setas, who is majoring in marketing.
The long journey
Setas’ life changed last August, while on an annual vacation with her family in Bay City. Her family decided to spend one of the days doing what Setas loved most – playing golf. The round was no different than any other – until the ninth hole.
Something was wrong.
“I had like what I thought was shoulder pain,” Setas said. “It was so painful, I couldn’t even open my eyes sometimes. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. It was way past 10 on a scale. Ten wasn’t even a barrier for it.”
She figured it was just soreness from swinging the club a lot, or just sleeping funny. But the pain was significant enough to end her round early, something she never does.
“I iced it when I got home and figured it would be fine the next morning,” she said. “I didn’t really think it was anything.”
The next morning, her shoulder was worse. The pain had increased, and the area around her neck was swollen. Setas, and her mom Susan, decided to go to the hospital.
The doctor’s findings were concerning: one of her lymph nodes was enlarged.
“He said that he may have found cancer and wanted to do blood tests and a biopsy,” she said. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m 21 this isn’t going to be cancer. There is no way’.”
Things moved quickly after that first assessment. The blood test and biopsy confirmed the presence of cancer. Cancerous lymph nodes popped up on the scan, all around her neck, and a huge mass was found in her chest. It was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, blood cancer.
“When the blood came back messed up, I was like, ‘Uh-oh, I may be in for something here’,” Setas said. “And then when the scan came back and everything lit up then it hit me. I’ve got a long road ahead of me.”
Life as a patient
Setas’s fight began, with 12 doses of chemotherapy, on alternating Mondays, from September 2017 until February 2018.
“The first few days, I was just super sad,” she said. “It was my senior year and it was really my last year with tons of friends that were graduating on time. I felt like I was just missing out on a lot. But I really couldn’t do anything. I had to get through the treatments.”
Her treatments consisted of doses of Adriamycin, the drug that causes patients to lose hair, and Vinblastine, for her blood, among other drugs.
“That was my chemo cocktail,” she said.
The chemo was grueling. The energy she once had to golf, or to simply walk her dog, was not there anymore.
“I was just so tired from it, I slept days away,” she said. “It just completely drained me. Exercises that I used to kick out in no time, I was like sweating and really, really tired. My body got shot, so I guess I wasn’t really surprised.”
Most of her days were spent in at her family home, in East Lansing. She couldn’t be outside with the fear of getting sick, as chemotherapy weakens the immune system. Even the slightest cough could have sent her back to the hospital.
But she was rarely alone, as there always were teammates by her side.
“That was nice for me, because I wanted to hear what they were doing, and it kind got my mind off of things,” she said. “My teammates are my best friends.”
They spent days together doing small activities like painting and making homemade pizzas.
Sarah Burnham, a senior on last year’s team and the current student assistant coach, knew how special she had to make those moments.
“I know it’s important to have the support there,” she said. “It was important to her and I know her mom really appreciated us being there.”
Radiation treatments came next, running every day, for three straight weeks, last April. The doses were low, and done to be preventative, to make sure every trace of cancer was stopped.
“After that, I hoped I was done,” Setas said.
As Setas’ teammates supported her, she wanted to return the favor, during the Big Ten Championship in late April – one of the most important competitions of the season.
Setas and her family made the trip to outside of Cincinnati, to see the only tournament she attended while she was having treatment. She wanted to cheer her teammates, and she was part of sharing the joy of MSU capturing its second straight Big Ten championship.
“It was really, really close at the end,” Setas explained, “and seeing them pull through it was amazing for me to see. I was ecstatic for them. That is our goal at the start of the year, to win Big Ten’s and get far in the postseason, and they did it, so that’s unbelievable.”
Her teammates appreciated the support as well.
“When we won it, was cool to have her there and run down to the 18th green with her to celebrate,” Burnham said.
The excitement of the Big Ten championship soon was replaced by worried anticipation. Setas would find out in July, eight weeks after the radiation treatments ended, if new tests would reveal she was in remission.
She was back at the same doctor’s office where she received her diagnosis, with her mom, dad Jim.
She can tell you the precise day: July 23, 2018.
The day Setas was declared cancer free.
“Everyone was kind of in shock and my parents started crying,” she said. “I was like in total shock. It was amazing. It was really nice to not wake up and have that be the first thing that you think of. There are other things you can focus on now.
“I’ll probably celebrate pretty hard every July 23rd.”
She knows how much support and love was being sent her way, going far beyond the confines of the team and golf course. One of Setas’ best friends created green and white “Seta Strong” wristbands, passing out more than 1,200 at MSU and around the country.
They were seen everywhere around town: on students, athletes, and even on the wrist of men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo.
“Just to be able to know that we were all supporting her in one community was really cool,” said Burnham.
Getting back to life
Life is now back to golf, school and planning for her future. Setas says she does not like anything had changed in her life.
“It really does kind of feel like a dream,” she said.
She doesn’t see her cancer diagnosis and treatment as a low point in her life. Looking at pictures of herself getting treatment, she sees her fight.
“I wouldn’t say that’s a sad time of my life, I look back and say, ‘Wow that was really tough’.”
On the first day of the Fossum Invitational, the fog finally went away and Setas played golf. It wasn’t her best performance, finishing at 15-over, tied for 57th overall. She started well, at even par through her first round, but struggled in her next two rounds.
But no score, no double bogey, could get her down, not after her journey to get back on the golf course.
“Just coming out to these golf tournaments are more fun for me now,” she said. “I would say I don’t put as much stress on myself anymore because it’s something fun to do. Even on my worst day I would take playing bad at golf then sitting in an infusion chair.”
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