Book Excerpt: Eventer Fights Ovarian Cancer

Amateur eventer Kim Tester shares her fight with ovarian cancer and return to competition in this case study from the book Back to Work.
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Amateur eventer Kim Tester shares her fight with ovarian cancer and return to competition in this case study from the book Back to Work.
Kim Tester | Photo courtesy of connecticutphoto.com

Kim Tester | Photo courtesy of connecticutphoto.com

"I was never an athlete until I bought Henry, my first horse, when I was 39," says eventer Kim Tester of Roxbury, Conn. "I'd trail ridden and shown at local 4-H shows when I was 11 and 12, but had ridden only a handful of times over the next 27 years. When I bought Henry, all I wanted was a horse to trail ride and hug. I'd never even heard of eventing until we had been together for two years and a friend suggested I might enjoy it, and I began taking dressage and jumping lessons."

Kim and Henry were eventing at Training Level when "things started happening that never happen. I was making mistakes in the studio and wasn't able to remember a jumping course." Kim, Chairman of the Fine Arts Department at the Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn., also remembers "other smaller instances that all said, 'Stop, something's wrong.'"

The Surgery
"During that same time Henry, my 13-year-old Mexican Mustang cross, became noticeably lame in his left front. I had him X-rayed and it showed early ringbone.

"I was devastated and frightened for Henry, as I knew nothing about ringbone. After my vet explained it to me and showed me the X-ray, he said there would be no more Training Level jumps--too much concussion--but bringing him back down to Novice Level should be okay if I was careful about footing and not over-training. We had completed four Training Level events, and Henry had been jumping beautifully and really enjoyed the height. But his body didn't."

Two days after Henry's diagnosis, Kim awoke in the middle of the night with cramps and severe gastrointestinal pains. "My gynecologist saw me on Tuesday, August 12, 2003, and a vaginal ultrasound was done on Wednesday. It showed a 5-centimeter irregular cyst and surgery was scheduled for the next Tuesday. I woke up to a complete hysterectomy for ovarian cancer: Stage I tumor with Grade 3 cancer--best case for tumor, worst case for type of cancer.

"After surgery I was bent over for at least three weeks. I came up with ways to help stretch myself upright--one was to brush Henry while holding onto his mane for support. Henry knew something was wrong, and he would stand very still and watch me carefully as I hung onto him. As I got stronger, he became himself and would try to bite me as usual. I was happy to see the change; it meant that I was going to be fine in his eyes, too."

Back to Ridden Work
Kim's trainer, Sarah Dalton-Morris, thought it would be three months before Kim would be back on Henry, and other friends believed it would be even longer. Kim "internalized that as a challenge to beat the time! I was so fit before surgery, I thought the longer I waited, the longer it would take to get back in shape."

She didn't attempt mounting and riding Henry until her muscles had started to heal. "A hysterectomy for cancer opens you all the way up. In essence, I had a big 'T' cut into my abdomen so I had no connecting stomach muscles." But it wasn't long before Kim found a novel way to determine if her muscles had healed well enough to get her back in the saddle. "We have no water at the barn--that was going to be temporary--but four years later, we still carried it about 150 feet from the well." She began to practice carrying the bucket only, then filling it with an inch of water. Each week, she slowly increased the amount of water in the bucket. "When I could carry a full bucket without my belly swelling from the stress, I knew my insides were strong enough for me to get on a horse."

Kim's first ride was eight weeks to the day after her surgery. "My husband, Brian, helped me up the first time, and my neighbor, Mimi Martinelli, came over to help me get off because I couldn't slide down on my belly--it was too tender. We spent about 10 minutes with Mimi holding Henry as I practiced getting on and off. Then I told her to open the gate. She hesitated but opened it and off we went down the road. Her comment was, 'Now there go two happy individuals!' I felt free! I had been in the house for so long and I was floating."

Kim's goal was to keep both herself and Henry happy and relaxed. "Moving is much better than not moving and just standing around." She went to a Kundulini Yoga class that emphasized strength building, flexibility and aerobic work. Henry had 24/7 turnout and was taken off all joint supplements. "We wanted him to feel where he was going and make decisions on what was a good 'step' for him. It worked. Instead of him standing 'pointing' (one front leg extended in front of the other), he eventually stood square."

Kim had three rounds of chemotherapy between October 6 and Thanksgiving and each treatment left her unable to ride for about a week. Aside from those breaks, she rode twice a week throughout the winter. "I rode in any weather. I was on Henry if it was below zero! I rode in a snowstorm. Even if it was just bareback down the road for 15 minutes, I was on." Kim walked around her neighborhood, trailered Henry for rides on the beach, and rode him into downtown Roxbury. "It's only 2,000 peopl,e and Henry loved the dogs, kids--even the trucks."

Return to Competition
In March, Kim and Henry started taking dressage and jumping lessons again, setting a goal to be ready in May for a Novice Level Combined Test at Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Conn. They came in eighth. In June, 10 months after her surgery, they won the Novice division at the Mystic Valley Horse Trials in Connecticut and qualified for both the Area One and the first annual American Eventing Championships (AEC).

"Henry was sound, I was fit, and I cried when they handed me the ribbon. We were both still struggling with our problems and recovery and every week brought a surprise in terms of new emotions. Henry was now back on supplements--MSM, CORTA-FLX? and Adequan? when in training--and I had my medication. I used this parallel in our simultaneous recovery to help me stay focused on taking all my own pills every day, exercising and trying to rest at regular intervals--though I'm still not very good at that."

In September, 13 months after her surgery, Kim and Henry competed at the AEC in North Carolina. They finished eighth in the Novice/Amateur Division.

"Henry and I have both seen a big change in our bodies in the years we've been together. I like feeling strong. It gives me a sense of independence and confidence. We found eventing suited us. I enjoy setting goals and competing with myself."

Kim's Tips

  • Don't decide to get on your horse unless you are ready mentally and physically. "I knew I wasn't ready mentally if my decision was made purely with emotion. If I could back away and look at my situation with common sense and some logic mixed in, I then knew the decision would be right for me."
  • Be determined to make it--"it" being any challenge (within reason) that crosses your path.
  • Consider "alternative" means of healing. "I've been seeing my naturopath for 18 years, and I credit him as the main reason (besides my determination) that I'm doing so well today. I believe the supplements he gave me while I was in chemo helped my body flush the chemicals out and kept my immune system intact when my white blood counts were very low"
  • Choose your friends wisely. "I kept myself away from people who were a negative influence. I didn't tell everyone what I was thinking or doing. I chose one or two people who I knew would help me, not impede my recovery."
  • Understand that emotional health takes time. "I'm writing this 11 months after my last chemo treatment, and I am still surprised at what feelings continue to surface. See a therapist or counselor if you need to--it's been invaluable for me to have someone I can share my thoughts and feelings with who is not involved in my daily life."

This article is excerpted from Lucinda Dyer's book Back to Work: How to Rehabilitate or Recondition Your Horse, which is chock-full of rehabilitation advice and know-how about horse and human recoveries. To order, call 800-952-5813 or visit www.EquineNetworkStore.com.