Ask anyone who’s heard those words. You can describe the moment as if it were yesterday. The room, the sounds, the smells, what everyone was wearing. Psychologists call it a “flash bulb memory” seared into your consciousness by the trauma of the event.
“You have cancer,” the doctor said, without any equivocation, any niceties, any waffling.
At first I didn’t take it in – a bit stunned really. After the internal “oh f***ng shit,” then came my first complete thought: what’s this going to mean to my riding?
OK, OK, before immediately dismissing me as a total flake, a liar or someone who just can’t face reality, you’ve got to hear me out.
I know, you’re thinking that’s just an escape. I couldn’t face the immediate reality of a life-threatening illness. And, frankly, you might very well be right. But I’d just recently taken up riding and I was full on obsessed. Being on the far side of middle age – the very far side – I knew this endeavour was going to be a challenge, but I was into it and time was of the essence.
I bought into Malcolm Gladwell’s idea described in his book “Outliers” that it takes about 10,000 hours to master any particular field. By my math, that means, at an hour a day, 5 times a week, (with two weeks off for holidays) it would take me 40 years to make up those hours. At night I rehashed the numbers. Maybe, just maybe I could squeeze that time in, if I worked really hard – rode on weekends, and ditched the idea of an annual holiday.
I tried to ignore the reality that the 10,000 hours estimate was optimistic at my age. Learning to ride when you’re young is one thing; taking it up as a… ahem, “mature” adult is another story. Muscle memory, (who has any memory to speak of anymore?) is non-existent for muscles twisted by decades of carrying heavy purses and briefcases. That, combined with an increasingly osteoporotic skeleton, makes developing the necessary balance and fluidity a search for the equestrian holy grail.
But I remained undeterred. I was prepared to work hard to get there.
With my diagnosis, my sinking heart knew the truth: Cancer could severely curtail my time in the saddle.
Over the many difficult months ahead I came to realize how riding allowed me to persevere. Whether I was hairless, or wore a surgical mask, my horse would continue to look me in the eye and see me for the pain-in-the-ass rider I really was, his view of me unblinkered by disease. The barn, my coach and my off-beat riding community were an all-encompassing alternate universe as I struggled with a life-threatening disease.
At the same time I realized just how little the doctors, surgeons and oncologists understood about riding, and the risks and rewards of engaging in this sport while going through treatment.
Over the next few months, I’ll share some of my experiences and what I’ve learned about riding with cancer. From surgery to chemotherapy, from nausea and fatigue to microbes in the barn, and from those who think you’re crazy to those who love you anyway. I hope what I’ve learned will be helpful to some of you who may be facing the same journey.
Along the way please share any thoughts, questions or your own experiences.