MISSOULA — The Montana women’s golf team is a testament to perseverance and the human spirit.
Just a roster of 10 women plus head coach Kris Nord, the golf team is a tight-knit bunch that is back in the swing of a season after losing last year to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But even deeper on the team are remarkable cases of both healing and challenges to come. Three golfers – Teigan Avery, Kylie Esh and Brooklyn Van Bebber – have all dealt with serious ailments over the last few years.
Avery and Esh are cancer survivors. Both Montana natives, the pandemic was another wrinkle thrown at them after personal battles.
Van Bebber’s is a different story. She has a non-cancerous aggressive tumor on her left hip the size of a softball. Though able to practice, mobility and movement are limited, and she continues to navigate recovery while playing for the golf team.
"It's been real impactful," Nord said. "They've stayed positive. Their approach to school, golf and life has been real remarkable in my mind and I think they've handled it as well as they're going to handle it because it's been tough."
'I kind of had a feeling in my gut'
Teigan Avery will never forget where she was when she got the news.
A Kalispell native and Glacier High School graduate, Avery, a senior with the Grizzlies, had just completed a hike when she learned of her cancer diagnosis.
The news came after Avery went to her yearly checkup with her physician two weeks prior.
“She put her fingers on my thyroid and had me swallow,” Avery explained. “And had me swallow a couple more times and went, ‘You know, I really don’t like that node that’s on your thyroid. I’m going to schedule you for an ultrasound.’
“From the moment she said that, I kind of had a feeling in my gut.”
After getting the ultrasound a week later, Avery met with her ear, nose and throat surgeon who she knew from a previous tonsil surgery, and he showed her the results. While the radiologist said it looked fine, her ENT wanted to do a biopsy just in case. Later that evening, she went out and caddied.
A week later, she went hiking with her friend’s family, and at the conclusion of the hike called to check on the results. It was then she found out she had thyroid cancer.
“I had gone to the appointment with my mom and when we found out the news, we were both just pretty stunned and didn’t know what to say,” Avery said. “I was just thinking about my golf season, really, because I was really excited to have a good season. I was feeling great about my swing, so as silly as that sounds I was thinking about my golf season and my school semester and I knew that I didn’t want to miss out on either one of those and that I wasn’t going to let this get in the way.
“It definitely made me do some soul searching though and trying to comprehend how at 20 years old I had a disease that took my grandfather from me. And when you hear the word cancer, it comes with a lot of emotions, and learning more about my specific type of cancer helped settle a lot of those fears. But when you hear the big ‘C’ it still brings up that fear of dying and that’s something that as a 20-year-old I didn’t think I was going to have to comprehend, and now that I’m 22 I feel like I have maybe a 72-year-old's perspective on living and dying, but it’s helped me be much more grateful and appreciative for the life that I’m blessed to live.”
Surgery followed in November of 2018 to remove the tumor and half of her thyroid with it. After that, she received ultrasounds every three months, which was eventually pushed back to every six months, and now stands at once a year.
“I’m pretty fortunate in that it was just the one surgery and I was done,” Avery said.
Recovery began from there, with low activity the normal immediately after surgery. Little things like turning her head left or right were limited. She wasn’t able to swing a golf club for a month.
By the end of January 2019, Avery began to feel normal again, but things like keeping her neck protected from the sun and taking medication were the new normals going forward.
In November of 2019, one year post-surgery, Avery was announced as cancer-free and was deemed to be American Red Cross cancer-free, meaning she could donate blood again.
“It felt really good,” Avery recalled. “I remember one particular day walking to class on campus thinking my life is on the right track again and that I can put this episode behind me. That was a pretty great moment.”
It was the highest of highs for Avery, quickly followed by another heartbreak. Two weeks after she was told she could donate blood again and on that day walking to campus feeling like things were moving forward, later that afternoon on Nov. 18, 2019, Avery found out that her father, Jerad Avery, had taken his own life.
“It was a very mixed day in that that morning was amazing and then the afternoon was the worst day of my life,” Avery said. “Just a tough day to comprehend.”
With so much to overcome, Avery found a way to do it through her faith and support group while understanding her emotions she was experiencing were normal
“A lot of it has just been trying to cling on to normalcy in whatever way, shape or form that is,” Avery said. “Throwing myself into my studies, doing the best that I can at practice has really helped me carry through. I’m a pretty faithful person and at the start of my cancer diagnosis I really questioned my faith and had a hard time with my faith in God. But after my father’s passing it really drew me a lot closer and those relationships that I have based around my spiritual practices have helped me get through 2020 and all of the curveballs that have come along with that.
“Life has not been very normal since August 2018, but thankfully I have amazing teammates and a great support system around me,” Avery said. “I’m really grateful for how golf has been my normal and a consistent thing to turn to and I’m very fortunate to have the support of my teammates and the athletic department throughout all of these different curveballs that I’ve been given.”
'I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions right away'
Kylie Esh was coming off of a freshman season with the golf team where she flashed why she was such a highly touted recruit for the Grizzlies.
A Missoula native and graduate of Loyola Sacred Heart, Esh was a two-time State B golfing champion before joining UM. As a freshman, Esh was second on the team in stroke average on the golf course and finished in first on the team four times.
As a sophomore in 2019-20, Esh was first in stroke average and finished first on the team three times.
But in January of last year, Esh, now a junior, underwent an MRI to look at what was assumed to be a torn abdominal muscle. A small mass was found, but it wasn’t deemed cancerous, and Esh wanted to wait until after the season to have it removed.
The spring season was ultimately canceled due to the pandemic, and when Esh had the mass biopsied in May it was discovered to be a rare form of cancer called synovial sarcoma, a tumor that develops in the soft tissues more commonly in the arm, leg or foot, but can also be found in the lungs or abdomen.
“When I first got diagnosed, I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions right away,” Esh said. “I was very, ‘Oh, since it’s very small, I’ll just get surgery and radiation and I’ll be back on the golf course right away.’”
Esh, who was diagnosed with cancer at 20, had an aggressive form of cancer and had surgery in July to clear the mass which was about 1 ½ centimeters. The fall season was ultimately canceled, so she didn’t end up missing any competitions as she recovered.
“Probably what has been the most challenging was the recovering from surgery,” Esh said. “Abdominal surgery is so painful and you feel it when you do everything because you use your abs for everything, especially with golf because you’re twisting so much, so it’s been kind of a struggle recovering from that.”
Immediately after surgery, Esh said for two months even just walking was a challenge because of the pain.
Esh, now 21, did radiation through October and is currently still in recovery, saying that the pain nags once in a while. Once radiation ended, she was cleared to begin exercising again.
On Dec. 2, 2020, Esh was declared cancer-free.
“It was amazing,” Esh said. “I was with my mom. The doctor took a long time getting into the office so of course we were both just waiting there thinking worst-case scenario stuff. Then she came in and went, ‘Great news!’ and we were both so excited.”
Esh said as her recovery moved on she set personal goals for herself that were achievable as she worked her way back. Seeing how many swings she could achieve without pain or upper exercises she completed without any setback were some examples.
“I really had to add lots of self-control,” Esh said. “I realized that even though other girls were doing a high amount of weight, I should not do that high amount because I have the possibility of getting injured again. I just had to really be mindful of comparing myself to the other girls because we work off each other and motivate each other and that’s my favorite thing about the team. But it was hard because I had to realize I was at a different level because of my recovery. So I just had to pay attention to that and make sure I didn’t push myself too hard.”
She has scans every three months to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned, which can provide for anxious waiting moments leading up.
But through it all, Esh has had Avery to lean on as someone who understood what she went through.
“It’s a really lonely experience having cancer especially when you’re younger because not a lot of people have it,” Esh said. “So having Teigan to talk to and lean on was amazing because she’s so knowledgeable and she’s older and more wise and had already (been) through it and she would give me tips on going through it. Obviously our situations were different but we could still relate in a lot of ways which was nice.
“It’s been really nice to have friends that have gone through it. I feel blessed with that. I don’t know very many people who have gone through it let alone having people on the same team as me is just amazing.”
'Just being there is huge'
The story is not complete without Brooklyn Van Bebber’s perspective.
While Avery and Esh are cancer-free, Van Bebber is currently dealing with a desmoid fibromatosis tumor, a non-cancerous but aggressive tumor, on her left hip. A native of Murietta, California, Van Bebber found out about the tumor halfway through this past fall semester. She said originally it was thought to be a muscle tear and caused her to lose some range of her mobility of her golf game.
While still in the process of learning about the tumor, Van Bebber, 21, said surgery isn’t an option for dealing with it. Chemo could be a possibility but medication has been the treatment route so far.
“It’s been an adventure that’s for sure,” the junior said with a laugh. “At first I wasn’t sure what to think in a way. I’ve been very careful with what I do in the gym because I don’t want to anger it, so to speak, because that would make it grow. So it’s made be more careful with my day-to-day life.”
Van Bebber added that after her initial MRI, she waited about a month to get results back, a waiting period that was a challenge especially in the middle of the school year.
“Honestly it’s been a roller coaster with everything but I’ve had amazing friends to help me through everything,” she said.
Along with the medication, Van Bebber does what she can so as not to “anger” the tumor. She said her biopsy angered it so it grew, and something like falling down and hitting it could do that as well.
However, she has been able to practice and participate in golf this season, though she describes her swing as “wonky” to make it work. Van Bebber played for the Grizzlies in the team's opening tournament in St. George, Utah, at the Lady Thunderbird Invitational in March. However, after dealing with that and a separate injury after the tournament, Nord and the team opted to have her avoid playing in tournaments the rest of the spring season, though she can still practice.
“I had to adjust a little bit because swing-wise I lost a bit of range of motion with it and we just have to be conscious about it during my swing,” she explained. “Gym-wise, I cut back to one day a week because I’m trying to minimize anything. It’s been quite an adjustment.”
Van Bebber said she’s been on medication for three months, and she’ll eventually have an MRI to look at it. Depending on whether it’s grown or shrunk, she’ll switch to another medication. There are three medications in total, and each will go for about three to six months to see if they work. If none work, she’ll switch to chemo.
It’s been challenging, but with teammates like Avery and Esh who have battled their own tumors, Van Bebber hasn’t had to look far for support, adding that teammate Allison Sobel has also been there every step of the way.
“It’s been really nice, they’ve been really supportive, they reached out right away when they found out,” Van Bebber said. “I had to go home pretty quick because my parents wanted to jump on it, so I didn’t really get to talk in person at first. But over phone they reached out and were really nice and kind of mentored me through a lot of it.
“They just really have my back and have been supporting. Just being there is huge in the process of waiting to find out what it was and all that. Now knowing my recovery plan I can talk to them about it and we kind of just go back and forth and their experiences and they've offered a lot of advice on how they dealt with it so it's been really nice."
“We’ve been able to bond and almost just like laugh about it because we can relate to each other and in those situations it’s kind of easier to just laugh about it than to be serious,” Esh added.
As the team moves forward with tournaments already under their belt this spring, it’s all about returning to a sense of normal after everything they’ve been through.
"It definitely gives you perspective and puts golf where it should be," Nord said. "They still take it real seriously and want to excel but I think they have a better approach to golf mentally now after dealing with what they've dealt with."