I have been a horse-rider for as long as I can remember. First ponies, then dressage horses, training, competing, all the time as a hobby besides my professional career. In 2018, my husband Trevor and I relocated from Sweden to Uruguay, a country we had visited many times and felt very attached to, like when you find “your place on earth”. In Uruguay, we live on a farm with horses, and I also have my dressage horse in a stable nearby. Hamilcar his name is, and he, together with my husband, family and dear friends, turned out to be the source of motivation that kept me going during a very special period in my life.
In July 2019, I found a lump in my left breast. I got an appointment straight away, and within a few days I knew the diagnosis – breast cancer. “I have cancer and I am going to die!” was the first thing in my head. Well, almost a year later, when my treatment for breast cancer is finished, I can say that both separately were true… but they are not necessarily connected!
My aim with writing and sharing this text is to give inspiration and practical tips to horse-riding women going through treatment for breast cancer, sharing my way of coping with the treatment. This text is not about how to “battle cancer”, for me that is a strange way of describing what I have been through. Coping with cancer treatment is for me a much better description. Neither is it a text giving any kind of medical advice. What worked for me might be totally the opposite for somebody else. Always check with your doctor what is best for you! If you, like I was a year ago, have just been diagnosed and you are desperately searching for information about what to do with your horses and to see if you can continue riding during the treatment, then my story might help you. And again, this is my story, not the way it works for everybody.
For me, the most important thing has been understanding from the doctors how to cope with the treatment in the best possible ways, so I can make my body and mind as prepared as possible. Breast cancer treatment is usually not a quick fix or a sprint, it’s more of a marathon. And during the marathon, it is actually possible to enjoy life and to do the same things as you did before.
In my case, the first question to my oncologist doctor was: “Will I be able to ride during this period?” And I will always remember his response: “Yes, of course! The more the better! Exercise will help you through this treatment, and your horses will keep your mind focussed on the right things!” I’m sure he also said “and go ahead and buy another horse!” but Trevor said I mis-heard that one… Well, you never know 🙂
Riding after the Operation
I had my operation on August 13 2019, the tumour was removed by lumpectomy surgery and the biopsy showed no spread to surrounding tissue or the lymph, and a tumour smaller than 2 cm. The reconstruction of the breast was made immediately and the whole thing was over in less than an hour. When I woke up I immediately checked my armpit. My doctor had informed me that if there were spread to the lymph, they would have to remove more lymph nodes, which would make the time until I could ride again longer. It was a relief to find only a small scar and a happy surgeon saying that everything looked fine.
Two weeks after the surgery, I was back in the saddle. I used double sports bras (and for a long time I never wore bras with metal in them, to avoid any oedema after the reconstruction) and I also wore a tight vest to prevent too much movement in the breast. For the first week, only rising trot, but to canter worked well from the start. It really helped to have a Lusitano, Hamilcar is such a smooth horse to ride with a lot of own “engine”. I can imagine this being much harder on a less educated or more uncomfortable horses. The second week of riding, everything felt pretty much as it did before the operation.
I knew there was a competition coming up the weekend after, exactly one month after I had the operation. I discussed it with my doctor and he couldn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t enter. “Live your life as normal!” That has been the core-message during this whole period.
So, off we went to Montevideo, and it all went really well! The thing is, nobody knows what you are going through unless you tell them, and so far I did not see any reason to share my circumstances with the whole world, I rather kept it to people who I knew needed to know in order to understand and/or help me.
We won that competition, but from that moment, all competitions I have entered have only been about winning against myself, proving to myself that a lot more than you might believe is possible, and that this is an episode in my life I have to go through, not a situation I will stay in for too long.
Riding during Chemotherapy
After the surgery, the tumour was tested with Oncotype DX. The results showed that I might benefit from chemotherapy, i.e. the risk of re-occurrence in my particular type of tumour would be even smaller if I had chemo. For me, this was a no-brainer, I choose to go all in, which would mean 4 cycles á 21 days of really harsh chemo, and then 12 weeks of another type, but much milder and with less side-effects. If you are worried about riding after an operation, riding with chemo in your body is a different ball game. But not at all impossible, please bare that in mind! Rather the opposite, you just need to plan and level expectations a little bit differently. First, all recent research says that exercise during chemo therapy reduces the side-effects. This became a mantra for me, that I repeated over and over again, especially on the “bad” days. For me it meant that if I wanted to feel better, I had to ride more!
My friends and the staff at the stable where I keep Hamilcar were all well informed about what I was going through, and I can’t thank them enough for their support during this period. A typical cycle would look like this for me: On Thursday I had my treatment of chemo, I usually rode Hamilcar in the morning and then headed off to Montevideo to get the treatment.
On Friday (Day 2) I felt quite OK, so normal exercise for Hamilcar. On Saturday and Sunday (Day 3 and 4) I felt nausea, less in the morning after breakfast because of the medicines I took to stop it so I rode then, jogging in the arena or out walking on the roads. On the Monday (Day 5) I stopped taking the medicine for nausea for the cycle, but also felt a bit more tired and emotional, so another day of jogging. But from Day 6 to Day 21, I could ride as normal, no difference to my usual training schedule. I rode horses every day (remember that exercise makes the side-effects easier), so the day I walked Hamilcar or when he had to rest (for his sake, not for mine…) I rode our other horses. I was in the saddle every day during the chemo therapy. And not only did it help to stay fit, it definitely helped to keep me sane!
One month after the operation, I competed with Hamilcar. I was so nervous when I asked my oncologist: “Do you think I can enter a show during the chemo treatment?” Guess what he said? “Live your life as normal!” One learning going through chemo is that you need to plan according to how you might feel during the cycles. For example, competing Day 1-7 could be challenging, but doing it Day 8-21 was for me no real difference to how I felt without chemo in my body. However, there are some other aspects to also consider. Day 7-14, you are extra sensitive to infections. And stress can of course have an impact on your immune system, as well as risks handling horses when you are in a new stable or transporting your horse.
I was very careful (well, as careful as you can be when you are surrounded by animals) in the stable and at home with our four dogs. I wore gloves all the time when I groomed the horses, and I tried to avoid cleaning their hoofs since I understood that some bacteria thrived in soil and mud. So for some tasks that you normally don’t even think of, it’s good to have friends that can help you. When I was with the dogs, I wore long-sleeves and long trousers, and for extra pre-caution, gloves, to avoid scrapes and scratches. I did not mop up too much in the stables during this period, and fortunately summer was coming quickly which meant all horses out in the field 24/7, except Hamilcar who I have on full-board.
Back to the training of Hamilcar. Day 12 in the First Cycle, my trainer Pia Aragao came from Brasil to give clinics. Should I cancel? Could I do it? “Live your life as normal!” So I trained as normal, 4 lessons ending up with a competition in Montevideo over the weekend. It went really well, we made our debut in Mediana 3 which is the last level before moving up to Avanzada (Level 4), and we scored a nice 66%. I was super happy, again, this was not about winning (although we did), it was about proving to myself that I can do things I love. And remember, more exercise makes less side-effects!
Four days before the Second treatment, it was time for another blood test. My blood count was a bit down, and to help your immune system to recover you might be given injections, to help your body to produce more white blood cells. I got two injections, and then the levels were fine again. But since the injections boosts the production of white blood cells, which takes place in your bone marrow in your chest, spine and hips, it can cause some ache. It did for me, and it made it harder to ride since you use your spine and hips quite a lot in the saddle. I especially noted it when I jumped off the horse, that it almost felt like my knees would break, so ever since I always jump off holding on to the saddle until I am safely on the ground. This could be age too, maybe I should not blame it on the treatment 🙂
One goal I set for myself when we moved to Uruguay was to compete in the National Championships. Back then, I would not have imagined that I would do it during the harshest part of a chemo therapy. My doctor repeated at every visit the importance of staying fit and for me to continue to practice towards my goals. The Nationals in Uruguay in 2019 was the last weekend of November, and I decided already after the first cycle of chemo that I would do my best to attend. It made it a bit more tricky that I had the chemo just 7 days before the Championships. I noticed that I was at my best 8-21 days after the infusions, but I discussed it with my doctor and he gave me a thumbs up! “Go for it! You will be my first patient in a National Championship.”
So, I entered the 2-day competition, level Mediana. Only to attend was a massive victory for me! I had set a goal, and I achieved it! Physically, it was no difference to how I normally ride. Mentally, chemo does have an effect on your brain, one way or the other. So in the second test, I totally forgot what to do next, in this case; halt and back 4 steps. Totally forgot. And this is so not me, I never forget a dressage test. It costed me some points from the judges, and I totally blame it on my “chemo brain” 🙂 But I won anyway!
I became the winner of the National Championships 2019 in Mediana, the Champion of the Year and I won the prize for the highest scores during the Nationals with 68.5%! When I look at the photos from the prize giving ceremony I feel extremely proud and thankful. During the whole period, I have had such a fantastic team around me; my trainer Pia, the grooms and friends at my stable and Trevor, my husband, who never once said “maybe you should rest instead?”. Trevor has been the most amazing coach you can wish for, with a magnificent mix of encouragement, support, push, humour and love. I could never have done this without him.
Riding with a Wig
One of the biggest fears for most women facing chemo therapy is “The Hairloss”. In my case, it started on Day 14 after the first treatment of chemo, and on Day 18, it came off in bigger chunks. I had already tried the wigs I wanted to have, and also, being a quite practical horse-person, I had decided to shave my head before it all fell off. Day 19 I sat down in the hair saloon, and the hair-dresser, a very rational man, said: “Let’s just take it off”! He shaved my head in less than 3 minutes and I remember smiling to myself thinking of how many horses I had trimmed over the years, never even reflecting about if they felt any trauma around that. Well, this was not very traumatic either, it felt rather good to take control over the situation and just get on with it.
Now at least two worries were gone: “Will I lose my hair?” Check on that! And: “How will I look without hair?” And on reflection: “Quite OK!” I have always worn make-up, and now would be the time to experiment, using more eye liner and less mascara (as the eye lashes were getting fewer) and filling my eye brows with a pen to make them more distinct.
Lipstick would be the same, and I must say I spent some more time and effort on make-up during this period. But all for the good, when you look yourself in the mirror you want to look as healthy as possible.
I got two wigs, both were called “protesis”, and they were quite expensive. It was an investment I chose to make, to keep things as normal as possible and also to facilitate my active life-style. One of them, a silicone cap made primarily for alopecia, could be kept on all day and I even slept with it sometimes. It was attached to my scalp with double coated adhesive tape, and this was the wig I used for riding. The tape could be re-used up to 3 times, then I changed it. It felt very secure to have this in the stable, it fitted nicely under my riding helmet and I could put it in a pony-tail or even use it with a doughnut to make a real dressage-riders hairstyle. I was never ever worried that it would come off! It felt exactly as having my own hair! The thing with this solution was that it became rather warm to wear for longer periods, since it was a silicone cap and not a lace solution, and it was absolutely not as sophisticated as a lace solution, with “baby hair” closest to your face etc.
So I got another one, a lace cap with silicone straps to keep it in place (no tape) and this one I used for everyday life. I can honestly say that nobody could tell I was wearing a wig, with neither of the two solutions. The way it worked for me was that I put on my make-up and my horse-riding wig with the tape in the morning, went riding and worked up a good sweat, came back, had a shower, left the riding wig to dry and put on the other one for the rest of the day. At night, both my wigs rested next to my bed and I slept with a cotton hat, or without anything at nights when it was very hot. It does work to sleep with a wig, especially the first few weeks before you get used to seeing yourself without hair, but remember to have silk (or similar) pillow cases or use a hairnet to avoid too much damage to the wig.
Riding During Radiotherapy
After chemo therapy, I had radio therapy. Since I had a re-construction of my breast (it pretty much looks the same as the other one) I had to get the whole breast treated with radio. This kind of treatment did not at all give the same kind of side-effects as the chemo. It was given daily for some weeks, and it’s very quick. For me, it took 10 minutes in total from when I went into the clinic until I was out in the car again. The treatment itself took about one minute or so. Since it’s given daily, I felt I got a bit tired and a bit weak in my body. This was worse towards the end of the week, so I decided to let Hamilcar rest on Thursdays and just do light jogging on the Fridays. The rest of the days I rode as normal.
Another tip is to ride before treatment if possible, I felt the tiredness came straight after the treatment and that I felt as normal the next day in the morning. Another thing to look out for is the skin reactions you might get. Towards the end of the treatment period, my skin looked like I had a pink sunburn and a little bit of a rash. It never bothered me, but I got a cream in the middle of the treatment from my doctor to make the skin calm down, which helped a lot. I do think the rash got a bit worse by riding and exercising a lot, so I decided to take it a bit more easy with the riding towards the end so I for sure could finish the treatment as planned with no interruptions.
Horses (and Dogs) as Therapeutic Friends
When I found out that I had a tumour in my breast, we had just decided to get two more dogs, two golden retriever puppies called Sam and Henry. My husband and I discussed if we should go ahead with it, or cancel. It did not take long to make the decision: Of course we go ahead! This treatment is an episode in our lives, not a phase that will last forever.
We live on a farm, we have people working on the farm that can help us with all animals if needed, and we already have two dogs from before, so two more would not make that much of a difference. And golden retrievers are great dogs! So, we picked up Sam and Henry from the breeder a week before my operation, and they have been an important part of this whole journey.
We have four horses living on the farm, and during the chemo period, I decided to focus my exercise and more intense riding to Hamilcar and the dressage, and use the farm horses for more therapeutic purpose. The four horses are out day and night in the field so they get a lot of exercise anyway, they could cope with a period of less intense work. But I groomed them as I usually do, and the interacting with them was as important as the riding itself.
They are different personalities, and I have a different relationship with each one, and it became even more obvious during this period. Ruso is my horse. He has chosen me, he does not want to be caught or groomed by anyone else, and he is the leader of the pack. I think he realised that something was going on with me, he used to be quite “jumpy” when I was riding, afraid of everything, seeing monsters in plastic bags by the road etc. When I started to ride him after the operation, he was totally different. He wouldn’t flinch for anything, walking slowly on long reins, it felt almost like he was guarding me when we were out on our walks. He became my therapist, God only knows how much I have shared with Ruso during this period!
Terry is a totally different horse. If they were humans and having personality types, Ruso would be a Red D (in DISC), and Terry a Yellow I. I don’t think he understood that I was going through anything, he just had so much more energy than usual since he did not work as hard as he normally would. So I decided to use Terry the days I needed to feel more courageous (not Day 1-7 after treatment, however).
We went out on long hacks, and Terry loves to run. I cantered as fast as he could uphill, just to feel that I still was very strong and had courage enough to do it. I would not recommend less experienced riders to test this self-treatment, but for me it worked to challenge myself. A seriously ill person could not possibly canter full speed on gravel roads, was my thinking, and I did certainly not feel like an ill person when I did it. “Live your life as normal!” Kind of.
Then we have two older horses, Bonnie who would be a Blue C if she was a human (she is the smart one) and Kent, a Green S who is a true team player, always chilled and safe. My husband and I used them for long, slow walks in the countryside, a great way of just relaxing and connecting.
Riding after treatment – a new start
When I got diagnosed in July 2019, I never thought that the year ahead of me would be as “normal” as it actually was. I think my assumptions regarding cancer treatment was that I would be hospitalised, that I had to stop all riding and other activities, not be able to work and to feel horrible all the time. Fortunately, this proved not to be true.
My most important insights are probably that life doesn’t stop because of a cancer diagnosis. It’s a tough message to get, but there are many ways to cope with the treatment that will help you to get better. When I reflect back on last year, I see that I did almost everything I had planned to do during the year anyway.
Another insight is that my “job” as a patient was to make my body and mind ready to cope with the treatment so it could be carried out as planned, without interruptions. In my case, exercise with the horses, chilling with the dogs and having Trevor as my soul mate through this were the three key success factors that made me ready for the process ahead.
And finally, the importance of setting goals. Cancer treatment can be harsh, and the goals need to be on short-term basis: “I’m going to practise flying changes tomorrow when I ride!” Or “I’m going to enter the competition next week!” The more I focussed on my goals, the less anxiety I felt around the treatment itself.
I think I came out of this treatment as a better person, and actually a better horse-rider. Not that I was too bad before, but I feel stronger, more confident and able to embrace life much more here and now. In my riding, I dare to test new things and I am not so afraid of making mistakes. I challenge myself, and I don’t care as much as before of what other people might think about my horses or my riding.
I’m extremely proud of what I have achieved during last year, and can’t wait to continue to practice towards new goals with my dressage horses. Did I just write horses in plural? Well, let’s see, maybe that was what my doctor said in that first meeting: “Yes, of course you should continue to ride! The more the better! Exercise will help you through this treatment, and your horses will keep your mind focussed on the right things! Why don’t you buy another dressage horse? That would be even better!” 🙂
Follow My Blog
Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.