What It’s Really Like to Train Through Cancer

What It’s Really Like to Train Through Cancer

I started riding in Southlands, in Vancouver, B.C. in 1978 at Mimi Rollins’ barn. I’m still at the Southlands Riding Club today, and that's where I had my very first pony that my mom leased me. I was about six years old and his name was Pepper Pot, and that pony was either going to make me or break me.

I was knocked unconscious, I was taken off with all around the polo field. I think I took lessons from almost every trainer in Southlands and they were all like, ‘Get off this pony!’ But my parents didn’t have a lot of money and Pepper Pot was free...probably because no one else would ride the little devil. I just remember falling off and bawling my eyes out, and my mom would say, “Get back on that pony! Show her who the boss is!” In the end, that really did make me who I am today.

When I was in high school, my sister and I started to collect horses. We didn’t have the money for it, but we managed a boarding barn, so we just kind of stocked horses and built little extra shelters for them. And so, in grades 11 and 12, my mom said we had to start finding a way to pay for all of them, and I started developing a little riding school. I wasn’t certified or anything, but I did it mostly for our family and friends and we operated through word of month. As soon as I graduated, I really liked the lifestyle, so I kept on working from there. I got certified as an instructor in 1998 and I just never stopped.

I just love being around animals all day long. On a daily basis, I’m usually overseeing anywhere between 20-25 horses. I ride three to five a day and I teach between six and ten people a day, whether it’s in group lessons, or pony walks, or private lessons. I especially love working with young horses and seeing the little successes along the way. Something as simple as when you ask a young horse to trot, and they’re like, "I know what you want!" Or the first time you walk past the garbage can without them snorting or spooking, because you fed them treats on those garbage cans for months before you ever got on them. Then you’ve done your job.

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In 2009, I had just finished competing at the 1.15m-level and had won a Provincial Championship. I was working toward competing in 1.20m classes, but after my horse bowed a tendon, we opted to sell him as a 3’6 horse after he recovered. At that point, I decided to remortgage my house and buy my 1.40m horse. His name was Coeur de Bravado, and I started working and training him with Gary Brewster. Shortly after that, I found a lump in my breast and I went to the doctor.

"I'd rather be outside being weak but doing what I love than be sitting around the house, moping about the bad card I was dealt in life."

At first, my doctor wasn't very concerned. Basically, the assessment was, "You’re too young, you’re too healthy—don’t worry about it, you’re fine.” I wasn't that nervous because my mom has lumps all her body, and none of them are cancer. So I carried on with my life. I kept training. I was loving my new horse—everything was fantastic.

Somewhere between 2010-2011, I started to notice I had lumps in my armpits as well. At this point, I went back to the doctor and I said, "Is this normal?” She told me she was sure that I was fine, but suggested we do a biopsy, just to be sure. The biopsy came back and I had Stage 2 cancer. It was hormonal cancer caused by estrogen, which I learned was part of the problem. When you're young and active, cancer can spread very quickly. So at that point, I was absolutely devastated. My goal was to try to get up the ranks, year by year, and take my time. I was going to start my horse in the 1.20m that year, and basically my whole goal, everything I'd planned went to shambles. But my next thought was, Okay. What do we do?

I did a double mastectomy because I thought, if I got it on the right side, maybe I’ll get it on the left side too. Then I had the reconstruction, and all through that, I continued doing as much work as I could. At first, I thought that nothing was going to stop me. That somehow it wasn't going to be a big deal. So I carried on working, and then all of a sudden, I collapsed one day lifting a flake of hay.

What some people don't understand is that the last round of chemo is not a hard one. The hard one is the first round you go through. It’s on-a-week and off-a-week and it becomes such a mental game. You go in and you do chemo and you’re literally wiped off your feet. And then you start to feel better by the end of the week, and then you have to go in and get it done again. It kills every cell in your system. It’s so brutal.

I did chemo for 14 months after my initial diagnosis. I think when I first got diagnosed and had my first treatment, I was absolutely suicidal. I didn’t leave my room and I was starting to have anxiety issues, which I don’t normally have. I was anxious about doctors coming to the house to give me needles—little things that never would have bothered me before. My mom and dad had to come and basically break down my bedroom door and smarten me up. They were like, "You know what, you’re going to be fine. Just deal with it."

I come from a very strong family where we don’t really take sick days. We work. So it was really hard for me to be told, 'You’re not going to be able to work. You’re not going to be able to show your horse this summer. It doesn’t matter that you remortgaged your house for this horse, you’re not going to be able to do that.' I had to realize that regardless of whether I was going to be able to jump as big as I wanted to do, I was still able to keep my sanity by just being around the horses.

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I started a program where I would do my chemotherapy and then I would go home and I would spend every day in bed until about 2 p.m. After 2 p.m, I knew that I couldn’t actually do any physical work, but I'd go downstairs—I was using a cane, because at that point, I could barely walk—but I found that I could sit on the edge of the fence and teach lessons. That was something I could still do, and I had people to come and help and set jumps for me.

I remember other trainers saying to me, "Oh Robyn, you should go home." And I thought, Well, what’s the point in doing that?

The community of Southlands really came together and they had a huge fundraiser for me. I have two children, a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old, and they are in private school, and my husband and I are both self-employed. We didn't have medical or dental insurance at the time, so that was another part of it. It was really hard on the family to sustain the way that we were living prior to being sick. I was so appreciative because I didn’t know how I was going to pay for all my horses. Half of my income also comes from riding, and I certainly couldn’t do that. But I could teach.

I still went to the shows and coached from the outside of the rail, and we figured out a way to make it work. We got a second-hand motorhome for the shows that had a fridge in it, so I was able to keep all my medications and the injections I needed regularly after I’d had a treatment to help me reproduce my blood cells. I remember other trainers saying to me, "Oh Robyn, you should go home." And I thought, Well, what’s the point in doing that?

I'd rather be outside being weak but doing what I love than be sitting around the house moping about the bad card I was dealt in life. Just coming down and brushing the horses or sitting outside their stalls when I was super sick for a week helped. With horses, there were always things that I could do.

I'd leased out Coeur de Bravado for a year during that time, which in hindsight, was probably the wrong thing to have done. At the time, I told the people that leased him not to jump him higher than 3', and in the end, that kind of dulled him down. When I got my horse back after I was feeling better, I thought I could get back on and pick up where I left off. I started off at 1.15m, and I had a really great round at Thunderbird. I thought, Great, full speed ahead. And then I just shut down. I didn’t have the strength to do it. So I ended up selling that horse and I gave myself a year break of not owning a special, fancy horse of my own.

"I think so many people overemphasize losing their hair. That’s very small in the grand scheme of things. You’re lucky to be alive. If you lose your hair, big deal."

The experience changed me physically as well. Definitely now, I feel more hormonally changed because it threw me into menopause for a while. I went through menopause in my 30s, which I shouldn’t have to do. And then I came back. So my hormones have kind been all over the place. But I learned I'm stronger than I thought I was, and also a few other things through this process.

At the cancer clinic, they kept saying to me, "You know, we’ve got these groups that you can join..." But for me, it was just doom and gloom for everyone because their lives had become cancer. My life was not cancer, my life was horses. My life is being around animals in my business. Cancer was a very small portion of what my life was about, so I wasn't going to let it take over my life.

I also learned I have an awesome husband. I never wore a wig, and I lost all my hair. All the women I met going through the same thing were all worried. I was in the cancer clinic and I looked around and I could tell who was wearing a wig, and I didn’t want to be one of those people. In my mind, I knew that I had cancer; I wasn't fooling anybody. So I decided to rock being bald and I only wore bandanas and baseball caps the whole time, and my husband just stuck by me. When I got home to the kids, no one even cared. It just was not a big deal. I think so many people overemphasize losing their hair. That’s very small in the grand scheme of things. You’re lucky to be alive. If you lose your hair, big deal. It’s going to grow back.

For me, the cancer also came back, and when it did, I had to do radiation for six weeks, which left terrible scar tissue on the right side. I had it removed last summer, but it came back again, so I just figure I’m just going to have a rock on my right side from now on. I’m going to learn to live with it.

But other than, the good news is that I’ve been clean and clear. I’m feeling pretty happy about that. My life was not cancer, my life was horses.

A year after I sold my 1.40m horse, I found my three-year-old black Hanoverian stallion, who I’ve now owned for four years, which means I’ve been clear of cancer for four years. His name is Donalli and he's six now. I didn’t intend on buying a stallion, but that’s what was sent my way and we mesh very well. This year, I’ll probably do .85 jumpers with him, and last year, I did the Baby Greens. I've dibbled and dabbled with everything. He's great because he's one of those horses you could kind of take in any direction you choose. I feel like there’s nothing he does that scares me—we’re super connected. He truly is my dream horse, and everything I ask him to do, he’s happy to do.

Looking back, I think it's hard to give advice to people who are going through this because everyone’s situation is so different. What I would say is to make small adjustments in your life, but don’t fully change what you do. I had to make adjustments and I didn’t like it, but that’s life. Do what makes you happy, even if you have to limit the dose of what it is you're doing. But stick with it.

-As told to Nina Fedrizzi. Images courtesy of Robyn Hunt. Featured image credit: flickr.com/FaceMePLS.

Written by Douglas Crowe

Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.