How an OTTB Saved My Life During My Battle with Breast Cancer

How an OTTB Saved My Life During My Battle with Breast Cancer

When I was eight years old, I fell in love with horses. Growing up in Maryland I competed in the hunters and worked at the racetrack on weekends, envisioning which horses would make the best hunters, eventers, and dressage horses. I worked for a small animal vet after leaving college where I met my husband who was deeply immersed in the world of Thoroughbred racing.

Fast forward to today, my husband and I, alongside his father, run a racing stable. Originally his mom was a part of our team and our matriarch but she passed away from cancer two years ago. Then, my own mother passed away six months later from kidney failure, so I took our racehorse who won over $500,000 and gave us our first graded-stakes win, Stormofthecentury, to the 2018 Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) Thoroughbred Makeover and rode in both mothers' honor. Although we didn’t win our divisions, we came away with respectable placings, won the Ambassador Award, and had the experience of a lifetime. 

I got my current horse Petey — my dream horse — as a two-year-old. He raced until he was a late five-year-old and once he retired, I restarted him with the intent to event him. Due to an injury to my back I was not able to ride him consistently so I leased him out. His lease rider took him through the levels up to preliminary. He’s 14 years old now, and has been home for three years; we solely focus on dressage with an occasional mini trial thrown in. It’s my goal to get my U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Bronze medal on him.

And I decided pretty much off the bat: I’m not letting a cancer diagnosis get in my way.

‘You do what you have to do to live’

I got diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2019, ironically just a few weeks after I had cut off 12 inches of my hair to donate. I felt a lump in my breast and immediately had it checked; They did a mammogram, an ultrasound, a needle biopsy, an MRI and then a lumpectomy which concluded I had two types of cancer, invading 50% of the tissue.

By April, I had a double mastectomy with partial reconstruction. On May 24th I had a port put in and began chemotherapy the next day, every two weeks for eight weeks before I began 12 rounds of a new drug. I finished on October 7th, had a month “off” and then began 25 treatments of radiation in November. I drove the two hours to the Cleveland Clinic to receive treatment every weekday, occasionally staying over at a friend’s house who lives close to the hospital. Following the radiation, I was put on a drug called Tamoxifen which is a hormone blocker. My cancer was estrogen receptor-positive (meaning estrogen caused it), so the Tamoxifen’s job is to block the estrogen production which puts you through menopause. Three weeks ago, I had a total hysterectomy. You do what you have to do to live.

The chemotherapy infusions made me terribly sick. Following my fourth infusion, I was hospitalized for dehydration. But as I began to get my strength back, I would walk to the pastures behind our house to give the horses treats and pet them. My horse, Petey, was always bad about being caught in the field and I would have to bribe him with carrots. Since I hadn’t ridden him in months, I couldn’t get near him unless I had one so I would sit there patiently waiting at the gate  — it was sort of grounding. He knew what was happening to me. He would come up over my shoulder and rub his lips all over my ears from behind and on my neck.

Walking to the pasture was the gauge my husband used on how I was feeling that day. He’d ask, ‘Can you feed this morning?’ And I would say, ‘I think so…’ If I said I just can’t do it this morning, he would know I was feeling pretty crummy. Otherwise, I would try really hard to get out there.

Related: 'They All Have a Desire to Win at Something' - Why OTTBs Have a Place in Therapeutic Riding Programs

I gained enough strength to eventually feed Petey, then go all the way across the farm and feed at the broodmare barn. Then I became strong enough that I could feed in the morning and at night. Little by little I gained strength, but I had severe neuropathy in my feet and legs — it makes everything feel like that sensation you get when your feet are about to fall asleep and it’s really tingly... and then they would burn. If I was on my feet for too long, walking the 500 feet from the barn to my house felt like trudging through three feet of mud. 

The Will to Live On

My diagnosis has opened up my eyes. So many people in the equine world don’t get checked. That’s why, from the beginning, I posted pretty detailed information on Facebook. Not only did I want to keep all my family and friends updated, but I also wanted to push all my friends to make sure they took care of themselves and got mammograms. I’m 45 years old and know a ton of people who have never had a mammogram. They now suggest to begin getting mammograms at 35 and go every other year, and at 40, every year. 

I’ve received countless messages on Facebook that said, ‘I made my appointment because of your story,’ or ‘I just had my mammogram because of what happened to you,’ or ‘I found this spot that’s kind of sore, what should I do?’ It’s been a lot. I’ve had a handful of people who are close to me that shockingly went and got checked and boom, they have cancer. People in the equestrian world take care of their animals first. Especially if you’re a mom, you take care of your animals, you take care of your kids, you take care of your husband, and then you’re last. I could’ve avoided a lot of pain and suffering had I gone and got checked sooner. 

Sometimes I thought, is this worth it? Especially when I was really sick. But it was about getting back on track. That walk out the door to feed was motivation enough. I always have to set a goal for myself, whether it’s a show or a clinic. As long as I have that goal in mind with my horse, it keeps me on track. My goals with Petey are what kept me focused on, ‘Okay Jenn, get up this morning, go out to feed, you need to go take a walk. Make an appearance in the barn, maybe brush a horse off.’ That was my therapy. I’d go out into the racehorse barn and there’d be a few horses tied up waiting for their legs to be done or waiting to be groomed, and I would just grab a brush and use one arm for a while, then use the other. I had lymph nodes taken out of my left armpit which made it hard for me to put my arm up. Brushing the horses was like physical therapy.

Being a lifetime horse person, it was hard not to be in the barn every day. I wanted to do anything I could to get stronger, even though people were constantly telling me to not do so much. When brushing a horse completely wipes you out, it’s very discouraging. But you get up the next day and say, okay, I’m going to brush two today. Or I’m going to water and brush two horses today. It sounds like such a tiny little thing that you don’t think about, but when you’re recovering from something like cancer, it’s a big deal. 

Making a Comeback

I got back on Petey last October. That feeling when you swing your leg over your favorite horse, after being so sick for so long... it was just like being home. I started out just walking, then I tried a little trotting. I remember when I started to canter, I did one circle and was like ‘Oh man, I have to stop.’ Petey humored me because I was probably bouncing around all over the place. The goal is to compete at a recognized show at Lake Erie College on March 15th. I had actually entered before I knew I was getting surgery and I refused to scratch because there aren’t many recognized shows near us and I’m determined to get my scores to get the USDF Bronze medal.

My goals with Petey are what kept me focused on, ‘Okay Jenn, get up this morning, go out to feed, you need to go take a walk. Make an appearance in the barn, maybe brush a horse off.’ That was my therapy.

So now I’m starting to walk the property as I did before. We have a lot of hills on the farm that I walk with my kids. But this is how I overcome the obstacles. When I see a goal, I’ll work harder to get there. If I didn’t have Petey in my life, I probably wouldn’t have healed the way I have. He’s my go-to. He’s so special and I’ll never be able to replace him.

People say I’m an inspiration but I don’t feel it. But what I can inspire others is to be their own best advocate when it comes to their health. I went to my local oncologist when I first detected the bump, but through my own research, I knew my results were more serious than described by the doctor. That’s why I always tell people to get a second opinion. Who knows, had I not gone to the Cleveland Clinic and accepted my original diagnosis, a year from now the cancer could’ve spread everywhere. I tell people, you have to do what you have to do to survive. 

At the hospital, they don’t label your survival chances. They say, if you do this treatment, there is a 96% chance that in five years your cancer won’t come back — they don’t say you have 10 or 12 years to live. I would say that I am cancer-free, but there’s not a label for it. Breast cancer can pop up anywhere. It can be in the brain, it can be in your bones, it can be anywhere. This is why I have done everything possible to ensure I get as much time here as I can.

I have met some really great people through this experience but it stinks that this is the reason why. The connections I’ve made and the support I received from the equine community has been incredible. It’s amazing how the community sticks together when someone in it  gets knocked down. 

As told to Lizzy Youngling. Photos courtesy of Jen Ruberto. 

Read this next: Phillip Dutton Doesn't Need to Be Convinced That OTTBs Make Badass Eventers

Written by Jen Ruberto

Jen Ruberto manages Wire to Wire Thoroughbreds, where she helps OTTBs find second careers. She lives in Lisbon, OH with her husband, children, and beloved Petey.