You know when you fall off your horse, and there’s that moment after you hit the ground where you lie there and assess the damages? Sometimes it’s a split second, and then you leap to your feet. Other times it’s a slower process of figuring out which body part hurts and just how much it hurts. Then you decide nothing is broken—or broken so badly that you can’t deal with it. And you get up and get on with it.
That’s been some of my mornings lately.
And no, don’t worry. Cairo’s fine. Bucking, sassing, making faces and fine. I think I’m fine too, but technically I don’t know.
It’s like going on coursewalks, and the fences are set in a different place each time. You try to lay out your plan, and it keeps changing. I’m an eventer, I like to walk my cross-country course a couple times, have a plan, kick on and go. And I’m having trouble doing that right now.
Back in November, I had a doctor’s appointment and was diagnosed with uterine fibroids, and if we couldn’t control the symptoms with hormones, I’d need a hysterectomy.
Honestly, I was kind of freaked.
But after a bit I decided that while the thought of surgery was scary, what I was really not OK with was the time off from riding. But my eventing trainer Meika Decher said she’d happily help with Cairo. I could deal with this. “I’ll take her to a two-star,” she joked. (Or maybe she wasn’t kidding, hard to say).
While I was getting checked out, the doctor scheduled an appointment for me for a routine mammogram. I’m 45; I was due. It wasn’t nearly as bad as people say it is, more awkward than uncomfortable.
Then, I got the call back from the imaging place: You need to come back in.
No worries, everyone told me, happens all the time.
Fine, but do they really have to follow up with the results in a pink envelope? Let’s wait on the Susan G. Komen pink until we figure out if I actually have cancer or not, I bitched to my barn friends, sitting on our tack trunks having a beer after a ride.
So for two months now I’ve been waiting to figure out if I have cancer. I haven’t blogged because I wasn’t going to write about it until I knew something. The situation got even more complicated when a routine optometrist visit revealed a questionable lesion on the back of my eye.
Luckily my trainers are not just great with my horse, they also give me good life advice.
Blog about it, Meika said. “The unknown is also a common experience,” she reminded me.
And Leslie Chapman, my dressage trainer, chimed in: It’s not only health issues that leave us dangling; sometimes it’s a mild lameness in your horse that won’t let you look ahead or even budget for your show season. Is it the end of the world? No. But it sucks.
So here we are. My trip through the great unknown.
At some point, I had to stop Googling the scary things and went and rode Cairo. She’s an excellent reality check. A non-riding friend said to me recently, “It’s great you go and ride your horse. She probably takes care of you.”
Non-riding friends often seem to have interesting notions of barn life.
Have you met Cairo? She might be my own personal unicorn, but she’s a special type of unicorn. If I’m in bad mood, she fusses and twerks and basically makes my riding life hell unless I stop being whiney and just sit up and ride my mare. Technically, she is taking care of me. It’s just Cairo is all about the tough love sometimes.
Cairo actually gives me sweet cuddles and soft nose kisses when I’m on the ground, and she’s part of who takes care of me—my barn friends. Meika was calling from out of state and offering help with Cairo, my dressage trainer Leslie found herself chauffeuring me to medical appointments, and my friend Linda, who lives back in the Midwest and is herself dealing with chemo for breast cancer, gave me advice from afar. I could list on and on (Alex, Reb, Letty, Janice …). From rides to the doctor to moral support, when you’re down, the horse ladies have your back.
I found myself going from offering to give a shout out to Linda by painting a pink glitter ribbon on Cairo’s butt the next time I ride at Rebecca Farms as part of their Halt Cancer at X campaign to wondering if the ribbon was going to be for me too.
At this point we weren’t just trying to rule out cancer, I was worrying about two different kinds of cancer. The good news is that eye melanoma is super rare. The bad news is that sort of just like when you go online to research your horse’s latest injury, the only things that ever come up, even when you limit it to medical and veterinary journals, seem to be the dire predictions. No one ever posts to say, “Hey, the vet/doctor found this thing, but it all turned out just fine!”
And, it’s like they say, it never rains, it pours. And given that I live in Oregon, it really does pour. A follow-up mammogram and breast ultrasound resulted in the need for an MRI and a biopsy. My friend Lindsay (yup, barn friend, she’s down the aisle from me) had just gone through a biopsy for the same thing. Stressful, she told me, but no worries on the doctor’s advice not to ride for two weeks; she was back on in a couple days.
Doctor aside, the information from the clinic, which came in a cheesy folder with flowers on it, said not to vacuum or do aerobics.
Hey, breast cancer clinic: The 1980s called, and they want their medical advice back. Do people still do aerobics? Also, as my home would attest, I don’t vacuum, but I do clean stalls.
“How far did you get after the meeting where they told you about the biopsy before you freaked out?” Lindsay asked me.
“The elevator,” I told her.
“I got to the parking garage,” she said. “But I was already hyperventilating.”
It was Christmas. As newspaper editor I don’t really get “Christmas break,” but still, most of Oregon sort of shuts down over the holidays when school gets out, and the news cycle chills out a little bit. More time to ride Cairo!
Instead I seemed to be spending a lot of time in doctor’s offices and stressing out. I wanted to plan my show season; I wanted to plan to ride in clinics. I didn’t want to spend more than a month trying to figure out if I have cancer or not. If I had cancer I wanted to know, and I wanted to get going on kicking its ass. If I didn’t, then I wanted to go back to normal again. Or at least stop spending all my show and riding lesson savings on medical bills.
I think somewhere in there was when I got the call from the college, where I teach a journalism course to make the extra money to pay for the horses, to tell me I didn’t have a class this term. It was a pretty big blow. Still, I have health insurance, and I can pay my bills, even if show season is now looking financially bleak.
Despite it all, I woke up the morning of the biopsy feeling like I had it all worked out. Cairo was set—she’d get a couple days off and a pro-ride or two from Leslie. Financially, it hurt, but I could pull it off.
I went in, put the pink wrap on for the third time and… they did a mammogram, and then another one. And another. They had trouble getting a good image, so they scheduled an MRI for January.
Linda gave me advice on the MRI. You have to lie very still, so think of something positive, but not emotional. Linda drives ponies, so she thought about the new cart she was getting. I pictured myself jumping off that big drop last summer on Cairo and my first prelim of the season. If I can do that I can lie in a giant tube that’s making horrible noises while regretting my choice to try to listen to hits from the ’80s and ’90s through the headphones they gave me.
The same day as my MRI, I went in for the dye injection, an interesting procedure where they take photos of the back of my eye while injecting vegetable dye in my arm that then shows up in my retina. Of course, I brought along my best trail-riding friend, Nadia, and dragged her in for the procedure with me. Horse friends are not grossed out by dye injections; they are fascinated.
The eye specialist told me that the lesion was not looking like melanoma, but it wasn’t a normal mole either. He didn’t yet know what it was. But, on the plus side, if it was to become melanoma, it probably wouldn’t be until I was like 80. And he didn’t think it was connected to the breast.
I was so excited to hear I wasn’t going to die in six months (that’s about your lifespan if you have metastatic ocular melanoma) that I never really got around to processing the part where we don’t know what it is.
Spoiler alert: We did the eye ultrasound last week, and still no one’s told me what the heck is in my eye, beyond the fact it’s not quite normal, and no one’s really told me whether or not I have to worry about it. I’m good at worrying, so I pretty much need a straight up, “Don’t worry.” I go back in April for more color photos to see if it changes. Send jingles that it stays boring and quiet.
And yeah, when they ultrasound your eyeball they do it right on your eyeball. It was kind of weird and gooey but not as bad as I thought.
The boob MRI results turned out to be good news, but while I waited I was nervous. Despite my trepidation (and my medical bills) I am determined to have a show season, so Cairo and I needed to jump. Or as Lindsay put it, hell if you were actually going to die in six months, why not just shoot for a two-star?
So getting back into the swing of things, I was working Cairo the Saturday before one of my many medical appointments on an angled rollback/lead change exercise over some poles. Cairo got pissier and pissier and finally threw a huge buck. I popped her with my crop.
I never hit Cairo. She’s not a “pop with the crop” kind of girl, but I carry one. But I was stressed (terrible reason), and she was being naughty (generally a good reason).
She reared, she spun, she freaked out. I reached out my hand with the crop and made sure one of those white-edged rolling eyes could see I was dropping it. She calmed down.
My friend Becky who was riding with me gently suggested I try the exercise at the trot. We did it. And at the walk, too. Then back up to the canter. Cairo was pissed, but she did it, with some twerks but no major drama. Becky, whose über-talented mare Tanana is related to Cairo and is a Flexible baby, can relate to bad mare days. “Don’t get worked up,” Becky reminded me, “slow it down. She’s objecting to your leg; you can accomplish the same thing you are working on at a slower pace like at the trot.
“Now,” she said, “go jump that x.”
I burst into tears.
“I want to go do a one-star,” I told her. “I’m thinking about going pro. But apparently I can’t do any of those things because I’m crying over an x.”
“You aren’t crying over an x,” Becky said. “You’re crying about all the crap in your life right now. Let’s just walk.”
Barn friends. Are. The best.
So my winter has involved three sets of mammograms, an MRI and an ultrasound and now another ultrasound (that’s the boob, we are not counting the eye ultrasound and the uterine fibroid ultrasound). If I was a horse for sale, I’d would not have passed the first vet check.
The final word after all these images?
I’m a complicated case.
I have decided this is the title of my future memoir.
I have microcalcifications in a spot that’s hard to get to. A subsequent ultrasound-guided biopsy revealed no lumpectomy was called for. So all good—complicated but good—news.
And the other weekend Meika came down from Washington to give a clinic. I asked her to ride Cairo. I guess most of us have stepped aside at one point or another and had someone else ride their horses, but this was a first for me. Cairo hasn’t had a pro ride over jumps since we were going novice.
I’m strong. I’m independent. I can handle this.
But as Meika pointed out to me, maybe the message in all this is that, like all of us, my mental place is related to my riding place, and to ride Cairo well I need to be mentally stable. “Horse training,” she said, “is really people training.”
I’m getting by with some help from my friends. So, here’s to good horses and good people. Wish us luck.
Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Oregon, who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice level three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo into her days.