You've just come home from your doctor's office, and it's safe to say you've had better news. He's given you a diagnosis--maybe acutely serious, maybe something more chronic--that's going to alter most aspects of your life, at least for the foreseeable future. And it's dawning on you that your life with horses won't be spared.
Can you continue to ride? Should you? Once you've undergone the more immediate treatments, are there any modifications you could make in order to stay in the ranks of riders?
And what about the daily chores that go along with keeping horses? Will some or all of them be harmful to you, even if you still feel you can keep doing them?
So many questions, so many things to think about...
Allow us to be one of the many roadmaps you'll need as you travel your road to recovery. Using information gleaned from other horse folks--some of them medical professionals, some of them lay persons who've already been where you're about to go--we'll cover several areas of illness often suffered by your fellow Horse & Rider readers. We'll tell you what to expect, what the effects might be on your riding and horse-chores abilities, and what others have found to be helpful as ways to get back to the barn and the saddle.
Facing the Big C
Health problem: Cancer. It's the diagnosis everyone dreads, and not just because of the mortality rates. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment, plus cancer type-specific drugs and recovery from surgery (if needed), are known to task even the most determined of cancer sufferers.
What to expect: Disruption to your daily routine, as you take treatments at a hospital or cancer center; fatigue; nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, bone thinning, and hair loss, in reaction to chemo drugs; skin burns at radiation sites; possible surgery and recovery downtime; depression, which is common for cancer sufferers.
"Radiation therapy involves treatment every day, five days a week, for six to eight weeks," explains Karen Schrum, a Redmond, Ore., horse lover and retired emergency room nurse who underwent the treatment after being diagnosed with breast cancer. "After about two weeks of this, I began to feel very tired--radiation not only treats the cancer cells, but also takes out normal cells. It's taxing on the body as it tries to repair the damage done to the normal cells. The feeling of tiredness continued all the way through my treatment, and for many months afterward.
"Chemo patients don't have to schedule daily treatments, but in some ways have it worse because of the other side effects," Karen adds.
Can/should you ride? Possibly not, at least during the acute phase of treatment. Even if you're able to combat fatigue well enough to stay safely on top of your riding game, chemo weakens your bones and increases your fracture risk from falls or horse-handling mishaps. Other cancer-fighting drugs may numb your hands and feet, or affect your sense of balance.
Much may rest on your level of riding experience, and on your horse's temperament and degree of training. If you were a timid, green, or poorly balanced rider before your cancer diagnosis, or if your horse isn't high on the training/reliability scale, it might be wisest to forgo riding for a while. Your riding options may improve as time goes on.
What about daily horse care? Your reaction to treatment will tell you how little or how much you can do. "Most days, I was just too tired," Karen confides.
Others, like former Horse & Rider editor Kathy Swan, a breast-cancer survivor residing in Scottsdale, Ariz., report a different experience.
"I was able to continue caring for, and even riding my horses during treatment," she says. Kathy also confirms something stated by the American Cancer Society--that physical activity can improve the strength and endurance of those undergoing radiation and chemo, while contributing to mental health by renewing a sense of empowerment.
"I actually feel that working with the horses in the barn, and trying very hard to continue with them, made the whole experience tolerable for me," she says. "The horses gave me a reason to get out to the barn every day and keep active. I credit them for making me feel 'normal' and giving me a reason to not feel sorry for myself."
Tips to try: Take acidophilus capsules to combat nausea; use aloe vera toothpaste to soothe mouth sores; go on a bone-building regimen, such as taking Fosamax; apply creams to sooth skin burns; focus your horse contact and riding efforts on your gentlest, best-trained horse; farm your horses out to trusted friends for a while, in response to their "what can I do to help?" questions.