By Rita Boehm
Who can watch a thoroughbred racing toward the finish line, a jumper with legs tucked, sailing over a picturesque jump, or a beautifully muscled equine dancing its way through a musical freestyle exhibition without appreciating the incredible beauty and versatility of the horse? Yet they are so much more than athletes. The sensitivity and alertness that allows these prey animals to survive in the wild, also allows them to tune in to the domestic settings we create for them—and to the people who control their lives. People like me whose lives have been enriched, and maybe even extended, by the horses who grace their days
When the phone rang that late Friday afternoon in September, I answered without thought. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard what my doctor had to say. After all, I’d already had an ultrasound, an MRI, and a needle-biopsy, but my innate optimism, my desire to always find a half-filled glass even among its broken shards, left me hopeful for good news. I wasn’t ready for, “You have breast cancer.”
Those words started me on a trip no woman wants to take—a forced journey that too many of us have had to make. I learned a lot of jargon. I can almost (but not quite) laugh at my earlier naivety, at my outright ignorance about various types of breast cancer. Who knew that triple negative meant something quite the opposite of what one would at first think? After all, isn’t negative a good thing when it comes to medical testing? Not so with breast cancer. In this case, it means that there are no hormonal causes, that the three hormonal tests came back negative. Potentially, a more virulent type of cancer.
As a writer, I enjoy doing the research necessary to provide realistic detail to my novels, yet I shrank from the idea of delving into the details of my cancer. Afraid that I’d be overwhelmed by statistics and the horror stories of other people’s cancer, I stayed away from chat groups and internet searches. I knew enough about myself to know that in my vulnerable state I needed to learn enough, but not too much, about what I was dealing with. I have since learned that everyone’s cancer experience is different. I know women who’ve attacked their diagnosis head on, spending hours doing research and writing about their experience. That wasn’t me.
Writing became impossible. When I received my diagnosis, I had about a third of my latest novel written, proud that I was meeting my goal of averaging five hundred words a day. I didn’t write another word for nine months. Writing requires that I dig deep into my psyche, into memories and ideas to help construct my story. While I was dealing with my cancer, I couldn’t do that. I was too vulnerable, too fragile. I was afraid to delve too deep.
My mind needed another outlet. Fortunately, I had one. I focused on photography, a hobby I enjoyed but rarely had time for. And there was plenty to photograph. I enjoyed photo-shoot excursions with a friend and focused on capturing egrets, white pelicans, and much more of the varied flora and fauna of central Florida. On a daily basis, my horse was often the subject of my camera’s focus. As were the manicured acres of the beautiful farm where he was boarded, and where I found peace and a place to heal.
I am by nature a control freak. While my doctors fought the disease on the medical front, I took on the mental one. First and foremost, I never stopped my daily trips to the farm to spend time with my horse. However, I did change the route I took to get to Ocala. I chose to drive on quiet backcountry roads—instead of the interstate. Viewing the antics of the cows, horses, goats and other farm animals along the way often made me smile. I wasn’t quite up for the intense concentration required to compete for space on I-75. If it took me a few minutes more, the inner peace was well worth it.
I needed to do more. So, for the first three months of my chemo, I chose daily, guided, ‘parallel reality’ meditations. I locked my disease and my fear in a trunk and merged with my healthy self face to face in a mental mirror. After that, I switched to visualization, not of the cancer cells being destroyed as some might do. No, that was too medical of a focus for me. Instead, I chose something more symbolic.
My medical team piloted a wooden raft as we crossed a swamp buffeted about by high winds that fought to push us back to a shore dense with tropical overgrowth. Alligators wallowed on the bank and venomous snakes wound their way through the growth. In front of us, always in view and getting closer by the day, was a lush pasture under a sunny sky. Along the fence line at the water’s edge, my handsome horse stood, ears pricked forward watching—awaiting my arrival. Next to him, my husband, my friends, and off in the distance the muted sound of a PA system announcing the next rides at a dressage show. My future. We just had to make it through the swamp.
The meditation and visualizations worked, or at least I believe they did, and that’s all that matters. I had no issues dealing with my six months of chemo, except some fatigue. I still managed daily trips to visit and groom my horse, and was even able to continue riding. Eventually, as the cumulative effects of the chemo wore me down, those rides turned into quiet, meditative walks around the farm. The last few weeks of chemo, when the fatigue was most pronounced, I hand-walked my horse around the farm’s beautiful acreage, stopping to let him graze when my energy flagged. Just as I regained my strength, surgery set my riding back, and my doctor forbade me from visiting my horse for ten days. I acquiesced, but it wasn’t easy. Over the next few days and weeks, I reclaimed my time in the saddle.
Later that year, twelve months after my diagnosis, I walked across the stage at a hotel in Orlando to receive an award for “Best Children’s Book” in the Florida Writer’s Association’s Royal Palm Literary Award competition. The award was for my children’s picture book, “Bluebirds in the Garden”, which incorporates my photographs of the charming bluebird pair who chose my garden to raise a family. Creating the book was a labor of love. The award was an exciting new beginning.
That was two years ago. I am filled with gratitude—and with optimism for a long, heathy future. And yes, I still make daily treks to the barn to visit and ride my horse. Kosi is both my equine partner—and my therapist who eats hay.
Rita Boehm www.ritamboehm.com