News & Opinion

Skinner’s event aims to help stymie breast cancer

Charitable endeavors underpin much of professional golf, bringing real benefits to real people far away from the gallery ropes. It can knock the cynical out of you to realize the good that goes on, not only as a result of tour events but through the efforts of individual pros such as Val Skinner who devote themselves to their cause the way they did competition.

Skinner compiled a solid LPGA career, winning six tournaments in a 10-year span (1985-1995), but what she has done off the course dwarfs her playing record. 

For those playing in the Val Skinner Foundation’s LIFE (LPGA Pros in the Fight to Eradicate Breast Cancer) event today at Mountain Ridge Country Club in West Caldwell, N.J., as I did a year ago, some advice: keep the ball below the hole on those heaving greens, but more important, listen closely at the post-golf luncheon.

“I get so many emails afterward from people, and they often say the same thing,” Skinner said. “They say they got there excited about the golf, about playing with an LPGA pro, and they left thinking about the reason they were there. That’s a hundred percent as good as it gets.”

This is the 18th annual LIFE tournament, which has raised more than $11 million (about five times Skinner’s career LPGA earnings) for breast-cancer research and education focusing on the disease’s effect on young women. None of it would have happened without the tragic story of Skinner’s good friend and fellow LPGA pro Heather Farr, who died in 1993 at age 28 after a grueling four-year battle with breast cancer that began when her early symptoms were shrugged off by doctors. Farr wanted other young women to be spared her fate.

“Not that anyone is less important, but for young women early detection is really key because cancer grows fast in young, healthy tissue,” Skinner said. “In older women, cancer is a slower-growing disease. The timing is critical for a young woman if she has cancer, and that’s where Heather’s case was so unfortunate. We started with her wishes to speak to young women, not to create fear but tell them they’re not bulletproof. Solutions come from knowledge, understanding your risks and early detection. And we’ve made strides.”

Big ones, too.

Skinner partnered with the Susan G. Komen Foundation for eight years with “Komen on the Go,” educating millions. “I remember when Komen on the Go went to a rodeo in Oklahoma,” Skinner said, “and some of the women there didn’t know what the pink ribbon was. Our thing was spreading the word, moving the needle on young women being aware.”

Current beneficiaries of the Val Skinner Foundation in addition to the Komen initiatives include DecodingCancer.org, an interactive and innovative high school digital learning program featuring the BioCONECT (Biology of Cancer, Online Education Connecting Teens) curriculum increasing science literacy and awareness; Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, where the LIFE Center offers genetic counseling and risk assessment for young women at risk of breast cancer; and the Young Survival Coalition, the only international, nonprofit network of breast-cancer survivors and supporters dedicated to the unique concerns of young women.

In nearly two decades of involvement – indeed, immersion in the topic – Skinner has seen how science has advanced to help breast-cancer patients. “It’s fascinating stuff,” she said. “The pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together. If you talk to scientists, I’ve never heard so much excitement around things that are starting to percolate. I think Heather would be like, ‘Good job, guys.’ ”

The 2017 LIFE event is honoring Scott Hamilton, the iconic Olympic figure skater who lost his mother to breast cancer and has fought testicular and brain cancer himself. Seven golf Olympians who competed in Rio in 2016 are among this year’s field of LPGA pros, who have been very supportive of the Skinner Foundation through the year. Many of the younger ones didn’t know Farr, but they know her story and how she inspired before after she got ill.

“I’m pleased to be a small part of how things have changed,” Skinner said. “If I’m supposed to do this, it will work out as long as we keep funding programs that make a difference and people stay interested in what we’re doing. I believe Heather’s the chairman.”

Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: williamhfields@gmail.com; Twitter: @BillFields1