Justin Sightler slung his golf bag over his left shoulder and knew something wasn’t right. He felt a subtle lump in his shoulder, about the size of a pea.
He didn’t think anything of it. He walked to the tee box and played in the tournament for the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta team. He called his mother, who thought it might just be swollen lymph node, the effects of a college lifestyle.
That was October. The small lump became bigger and more painful. A biopsy was taken around Thanksgiving in November. A diagnosis of Stage 3 non-Hodgkins lymphoma came in December.
On Friday, a cancer-free Sightler will receive the Athletic Director Choice Award at SCAD’s annual sports ceremony. It’s an award inspired by Sightler’s journey and subsequently will be given to an athlete who inspires others. Soon, Sightler will graduate.
He beat the odds, became a better person and didn’t let the cancer interrupt his life.
“Amazing story and end to a very good college career,” SCAD golf coach Wyatt Graff said.
Sightler’s blond hair, normally thick and long, is crew-cut short, one of the effects of chemotherapy, as he nervously fiddles with a water bottle and describes being diagnosed with cancer during the Christmas break.
Instead of staying in Texarkana, Texas, with his mom and siblings, Sightler defied his oncologist and returned to Atlanta to continue school and continue golf. His mother, Maggie, said she still doesn’t know which was harder to hear: the diagnoses or that he was going to try to beat it hundreds of miles away from home.
“I looked at as something that I just had to go through,” he said. “It didn’t phase me in a negative way.”
But Sightler has always been determined. He started a lawn-care business as a teenager and saved enough money to buy a Toyota pick-up before he was old enough to drive.
Sightler received chemotherapy at Emory every other Wednesday, always accompanied by Graff. The two would spend the 4-5 hours talking about golf and the coming tournaments. Most of the tournaments were scheduled to start 10 days after the treatments, enough time for him to recover and prepare to walk the 36 holes Monday and 18 more Tuesday.
He said he needed to return because he needed to finish both his sport and his obligation to SCAD. Golf gave him a reason to keep going. Finishing his degree in advertising was something he said he needed to do.
“Golf gave me something to look forward to that made me feel better,” Sightler said. “The faster I could feel better, the faster I could play golf.”
Sightler’s golf, and studies, both improved.
“It kind of clicked that I can go through school and go through the motions or I can put everything into it and make great grades,” he said.
The one event that didn’t really fit into Sightler’s chemo schedule was the conference tournament, which started just a few days after a treatment. Sightler said chemo can knock him out for as many as five days. Graff gave him the choice of sitting out.
Sightler didn’t want to do that. Graff gave him the choice of walking the first 18 and then sitting out the next 18 so that he could come back Tuesday. Sightler said he would consider it.
He shot a 77 in his first 18, one of the best rounds of his career. He told Graff he wanted to keep going. His only request was lots of water.
He followed with a 76 and rolled in another 76 in Tuesday’s final round. It wasn’t enough to help SCAD win the tournament or advance to the national tournament, but Graff said it was inspiring.
“He’s got the confidence he can overcome anything,” Graff said.