When Cancer Attacks, Horses Can Help
From A Survivor’s Point of View
By Claudia Swisher, Founder of Balanced Awareness Horsemanship
The experiences we have in our lives are part of what makes us who we are. The choices we make and how we react is the rest of the puzzle of who we are. We can choose a new path at any time. If we look for good,then we find good even in the most horrific experiences, however if we look for bad,then we can find it even in the most wonderful of times. Horses and riding have always been a big part of my life. The visual sight of the horse’s body and their motion was intriguing,and I used itin art when I was young. I was absolutely fascinated with them, so not having a horse as a child not only didI draw them,but I also had models,and dreamed of one day riding. After finally getting the chance to ride, and then to own a horse,it consumed my whole being. I learned all I could. Then the unthinkable took over my life. The feel of a horse's movement, the connection under your seat, the flow of footfall in each gait and the freedom riding gives you from the rest of your life, was slowly being taken away from me. For years it steadily started sneaking up on me. Atfirst,I noticed I was not as balanced skilled a rider, with less strength in my legs and lower body, less stamina. ThenI was unable to mount from the ground. At only 40 years,I could not go over a jump without loss of balance. My canter work to one side felt off and I became discouraged and started to think riding would never feel the same. I had been able to ride a buck out of a horse, go for hours on end in the saddle;working several horses a day one after the other, but now I was lucky to ride one for a few minutes without increasing pain in my knees, legs,and in my lower abdomen. I started learning more on ground schooling as a result, line driving and working the horse on the ground instead of the saddle. I learned more about the movement of the horse now because I was able to watch the feet and the body. I could refine movements, discovered greater collection from the rear, and created more roundness and bend in the whole horse. I was able to enjoy riding again from the ground. It still bothered me that when it came time to be in the saddle, I was less than ideal. My doctor would say " Well you know you are getting older ", now at 45,Bull,I knew lots of people much older than me that could still ride,and it made me mad. I knew there had to be something wrong inside my body. I went to doctor after doctor, and they would say the same thing. They would want to put me on medication but did not know why. I would refuse to take anything unless they could pinpoint my problems. The only relief I got in this time was from my Chiropractor, but he was confused and concerned that there was something causing my problems as well. After 12 years of increasing pain,anenlarging lower stomach,and a feeling as if I were pregnant again(but when I was pregnant,I still rode and trained right up to the last few days with no pain or problems), I had almost given up on riding. I still gave lessons and took care of my horses. I rode little now, only enough to get on a horse to do a quick demonstration,or correction of a student’s horse or one of my school horses. Making up excuses had become easy now, the more painful it became the less my interest in riding. Enjoying the student’s and my son’s riding was more myfocus now. Learning new techniques and fixing things from the ground was easy, but I was still missing the feeling you get when you ride. It was always in the back of my mind.Other problems began to arise as well like bending over, lifting, mucking, and getting in and out of bed was becoming difficult and painful. My knees were gone, no more
swatting in the garden and working in the flower beds. Keeping close to the bathroom was always in the back of my mind now as holding my water was impossible. Long car rides were out of the question without lots of potty break stops. Finally,it was so bad I had given up doing lessons except for a few. No more training, gardening,or much of anything else. I felt useless and oldat 48. In the back of my mind was a nagging feeling that I would not make it any longer than my dad did. He died at the age of 49,he had thyroid cancer and it went into his bones and spread all through him. It was terrible to watch him go downhill so quickly and painfully, making the end almost a relief. I had other relatives on his side of the family that died early from cancer as well, so I just figured my time was going to also be short. I continued to go to doctors that didnotfind a thing, and just wanted me to take Rx's without a diagnosis. Nope, I took none of what they tried to prescribe. I still had my horses,and they kept me going,even though it was hard to take care of them. Their eyes and ears were always there for me. Kindness from deep within them surrounded me whenever I was at the barn and kept me focused.The year of 2004 was devastating. We had some older horses that were going downhill, and the discussion had to be made that all horsemen dread. We had a 40+ year old pony named Daisy who we rescued out of the slaughter pen when she was 28.Another horse,Blossom, my old pal,had severe high and low ringbone making even walking painful.Sandy at 22 was in a terrible way and my vet did not know what was wrong and we had exhausted everything. Then, my husband's horse BB, at 10years old had unexpectedly jumped a ditch, did a nosedive, flipped,and fractured her first cervical vertebra, developing wobbles. I could hardly take seeing 4 of our buddies in this shape. It kept being put off, but when Sandy got down and couldn't get up for hours, that did it. We had to do something. My old pony Daisy was now 40+ and, she was getting to a point where nothing could keep her body weight reasonable. Food fell out of her mouth after she got all the juices out, even soaking it in hot water was not enough. Her frail little white and black body was hard to look at. At the same time nothing could be done with BBas she progressively became more unable to walk. It was another heartbreaking decision that had to be made. During this time as well,my big palomino mare Sandy was 22, losing weight, getting stiffer to the point she could no longer get up and down(back then the veterinarians knew little about EPM, which we now think was the problem).Finally,my old buckskin mare Blossom, who was my first horse’s first filly,my barrel racer, and best buddy for 28 years,was at the point with her high and low ringbone,that neither the veterinary norfarrier could keep her comfortable anymore. These horses had been my friends, taught many children and adults to ride, carried my son from a little squirt to adulthood, and they did not deserve to be in this shape. I did not want to make these decisions, but it had to made, no more postponing. With my own pain and discomfort there were times I wish someone would put me to sleep too. My husband’s horse was getting much worse,so the call was made,and we put her and Blossom down at the same time,then the other two the next month had to be helped.I felt horrible, but relieved to know they were out of pain and would no longer suffer. It was the right thing to do. After that I kind of went downhill, I gave up on everything. I had been doing Yoga for the past several years which helped a lot with pain management and kept me focused. Massage therapy also helped, but nothing could stop the nagging in the back of my mind. One day I fell and the pain in my abdomen was so bad it kept me in bed for a couple days. I knew something was terribly wrong and called a doctor that a friend had recommended. Turned out the ladyI talked too at the office lived just up the
road from me and got me in that day. The Doctor was a kind and older gentleman. After examination he sent me over to the hospital for a scan, and wanted me to return to his office stat. The news was not good, but at least I now knew what was wrong. I had Ovarian Cancer with large masses. Well for the first time in a long time I had peace, knowing what was causing my long-standing problems was somehow comforting. The Doctor immediately scheduled my appointment with a specialist.As my prognosis was grim, He suggested I tell my family, and get my affairs in order,it was so advanced I more than likely world not have long andmay not even come back from UVA. I told my family and a few friends;then called the specialist, postponed my appointment,and drove to Florida with a friend. I told them all “If I am not coming back,then I might as well not go until I'm ready”.Boy,did I get in trouble with my doctor for that one. I had a great time with my friends on the trip and came back ready for whatever they found. More and more people were sending me their sympathy and saying prayers. The whole time the horses were there, silently comforting me and supporting me. I was so glad the 4 I lost were not there in caseI did not come back.The horses that we had left were always comforting to talk to, and it was almost as if they understood something was wrong. After my appointment and another more complete scan, I found out in detail about what was going on in my body. The three large masses the ultrasound had picked up, and the cancer was not the same as what the last scan had detected. Either the first one was wrong, or all the prayers had changed things in there.I do not know what happened but was glad for the changes.I did have ovarian cancer, but instead of stage 3 it turned out to be stage 1. The masses turned out to be one eight-pound fibroid tumor, my left ovary was all cancer and enlarged, three times the normal size,and my uterus was somehow also enlarged. After lots of tests, prodding, poking, needles, and choices to be made;surgery day was here. All went well and when I woke up my doctor came by to tell me what they had found.They got it all, it was a massive tumor, but it seemed to be contained, and had not metastasized to the other organs. They would do more testing on the tissue, but he was happy with the surgery, and had a good prognosis. The next day was good,I was inpain,but nothing like what I had been going through the years prior. The tumor had been so large it had pushed things around inside and had cut off most of the nerve and blood flow to my legs. I felt great with it gone. I was on the bed doingYoga Seal when the doctor came in the next morning. He said,“well I guess if you can do that,then you can go home as soon as we can get your bowels moving”. Three days later,I was back home and almost 15 pounds lighter. I felt great and it did not matter if I did have cancer at least I had this time to enjoy riding and living,without the discomfort that had robbed me of it for so long. In less than 2 weeks,I was up on a horse and riding. The first ride that old feeling was back. Pewee, one of my best school horses, was my first pick. He was smooth,and a good ride with a wonderful canter. I took it slow at first working at the walk, then the jog, then trot,and did some lateral movements. My legs were back the pain was gone. YIPPY!!!!!! I could ride again. I could hardly control myself;I was able to canter again without any problems. Poor Pewee, for the next couple weeks he thought he had died and gone to cantering hell. I don't think he had had to canter that much in his whole life. As the first month passed and my body returned to almost normal,the chemo had to start, at the doctor’s strong suggestions.I was reluctant and feeling great. My father had done chemo and I saw it take away any life he had left. I wanted to enjoy the time I had left. My family and friends did not want to me to take a chance with my life,so I agreed to go to chemotherapy. Luckily,my oncology nurse had been one of my favorite riding students, and a friend. She took very good care of me and looked out for me as
well as possible. As always,my horses were there with me in person at the barn,and in my thoughts at the doctor’s office.After the first session, which they had to stop due to my having a severere action, my health went downhill again. Each treatment was torture with worse reactions as well as growing debilitating side effects until my specialist agreed with me that it was better to stop. I could hardly walk, see,or hear. I could not even enjoy the birth of my granddaughter as I should have. I had been one of those few that developed problems from chemo. This was not a surprise to me as I have always had allergic reactions to most every Rx I was prescribed. I lost the feeling in my hands and feet, the roaring in my ears was so bad I could not sleep or hear, I experienced chest pains and rapid heart rate, swollen joints from lupus, and trouble thinking and focusing. These were just a few of the issues I faced.With lots of time on my hands I started researching cancer on the internet and looking for more natural treatments with fewer side effects. Looking up ways to help myself through other means. I always came back to my horses for my sanity,and to keep me going. Yoga,and helping others were part of the recovery. I set myself to work at helpingmycommunity,and horses. With the help of some students and fellow horseman we formed an old people’s ride club, a community horseman/ business network,and an equine rescue. Over the next several years,I continued to develop my horsemanship and teaching skills. The problems and pain that were once my foes,were now my incentives to develop more complete and balanced horsemanship techniques and teaching tools. Because of the problems cancer had caused I developed my Balanced Awareness Methodology. Horses helped me get through my cancer and become a survivor instead of a victim. On my continued journey through this life my horses will always be there with me and for me. My horses are my life,and always will be part of me. The look in the eyes that give me comfort, the soft nicker of recognition when they see me coming, the feel of the nose against my face,andthe muscles under my saddle as they move are just a few of the memories I carry with me.Going on the seventeenthyear.I am still here, so far so good. During that time,I was busy with doing the things I wanted to accomplish before I left this world. I am ready to go anytime but will continue to try to do things that are right and good. When you look at your own life and know it is short, you want to make it sweet. The song at that time in my life tells it well. It went something like this “when you get news like that what did you do?” response,“Well I went sky diving, I went ...”,well you know the rest.We all need something to keep us going. I had a granddaughter born that I wanted to see grow up, family and friends to laugh with, a lot of horses to ride and work with, students to develop into great horsemen, and people to tell this one thing to...“Live as if this is your last day, love all you have around you, and make a good impression on those you meet;be honest with yourself;and the most important,do the right thing.”I hope I can be still doing the right thing for a long time, but if not,thenthe last thing I do will be the right thing!