Rick Sovereign has Stage 5 cancer.
Never mind that the medical books say there are only four stages and that doctors have told him his illness has advanced to the last one.
Sovereign has Stage 5 cancer because he believes he has Stage 5 cancer, and when one has conditioned one’s mind to think with laser-like focus the way he has, there’s no use trying to change it.
Nobody could change it when at 28 years old, Sovereign quit a lucrative sales job to chase a dream playing professional golf. (He earned his pro card two years later and played competitively until last year.) And nobody can change it now, at 52, as he sits in a wheelchair in a Mississauga hospital with metal rods in his broken arms talking about recuperating as though cancer were a hiccup on the golf course, like hitting into a sand trap.
“I like to think I’m in Stage 5,” Sovereign says. “Stage 5 is about what you can do. Stage 5 is about being the person cancer hasn’t seen yet. I live in that world.”
“Over my golf career, I learned to think well,” Sovereign continues. “Every round of golf doesn’t go according to plan, there are always deviations. You work with what you’re given.”
It may be tempting to liken “thinking well” to old-fashioned positive thinking or the fifth stage of grief – acceptance. There are elements of both at work.
Sovereign acknowledges that his prostate cancer has metastasized and cannot be cured, only treated. He is also optimistic that treatment can prolong his life, maybe even get him back on the links. But he’s realistic about his prognosis and has prepared for the worst in addition to envisioning a future.
That, says Bob Rotella, a renowned sports psychologist who preaches “thinking well” and whom Sovereign calls the biggest influence in his life, is what “thinking well” is all about, whether on the golf course or in a hospital bed.
“There’s probably a stronger relationship between negative thinking and failure than a great state of mind and getting everything you want,” Rotella says. “But if you don’t believe in yourself, then you basically don’t have a chance.”
Last month, Rotella met Sovereign at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga. A relative of Sovereign’s arranged for the visit following the British Open, where Rotella was counselling golf icons Padraig Harrington and Keegan Bradley.
By the accounts of both men, they spent five hours barely touching on the principles that have guided their lives and instead, as Sovereign put it, “went at it like two passionate golf nuts.”
The science behind whether mindset can influence the course of disease is mixed, with most studies indicating no link at all. That should not suggest optimism is futile. Doctors say it can alleviate stress and make interactions with friends and loved ones more pleasant and meaningful.
At Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, patients are encouraged to focus on “double awareness” – processing the emotions that accompany cancer, while living to the fullest.
“We want people to think positively, but if you begin with that concept there’s no room for other feelings, and you can’t avoid thinking about those other things,” says Gary Rodin, head of psychosocial oncology and palliative care.
Alastair Cunningham, former director of the Healing Journey program at Princess Margaret, which teaches patients to harness the power of the mind, believes a rational mental attitude can slow the spread of cancer.
“Positive thinking often just means denial, saying ‘This isn’t going to get me,’” Cunningham says. “Another kind of positive attitude is looking at all the pros and cons and facing them straight on and not letting them get you down. That’s a more mature attitude, and I believe it can help.”
Sovereign, who now lives with his wife, Barbara, and two daughters, in Mississauga, unwittingly cultivated his attitude early. He was a nationally ranked golfer as a juvenile, but saw a university education and a career in sales as the best way to make a living and nurture his game. When sales grew so demanding it deprived him of time on the greens, he quit and started a printing company so he could call his own hours.
“There was never a passion for the work, there was always a passion for the golf,” Barbara says of her husband.
It was in his early 30s that Sovereign read Rotella’s book Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect. Concepts like “thinking well,” training and trusting yourself, and chasing dreams resonated with Sovereign, in part because they helped him better define his pursuit: It wasn’t about winning a PGA Championship, but rather simply being the best golfer he could be.
From the perspective of a weekend golfer, Sovereign’s professional career was impressive, if undistinguished. He kicked around what could be called the minor leagues of professional golf – small regional tours whose tournaments carry purses of a few thousand dollars. He won a few along the way, earning just enough prize money in any given season to cover his expenses.
“It didn’t matter where I was because the passion to improve and get to the next level was always there,” Sovereign says.
Now Sovereign is applying that thinking to his illness. It’s the reason, he believes, he twice overcame what doctors thought was his end. Perhaps, too, it’s why he sits ramrod straight and speaks with infectious enthusiasm about a future with his family and coaching young golfers. Only the hospital gown and intravenous plug in his hand betray his true condition.
Rotella notices it, too. He recalls a moment of clarity when he left Sovereign at the hospital to fly home to Charlottesville, Va.
“I thought about what I do for a living and having a great attitude and said to myself, ‘I’ll find out if I really have a great attitude when I’m being tested the way Rick is being tested,’” Rotella says. “That’s the real measure of a man.”