Cancer: Who, Me?

The two health problems I thought I would never have because of my healthy lifestyle and lack of risk factors were osteoporosis and cancer, yet I ended up with both! It took at least 2 years to get both diagnosed. The treatment I was getting for osteoporosis wasn’t helping and the prescriptions had too many side effects for me. That’s because the traditional treatment wasn’t the right one for me. My primary care physician (PCP) finally realized I had hyperparathryroidism which caused excessive calcium in my blood leached from my bones. I was referred to an Ear Nose and Throat specialist, Dr. Cravens, who explained the difference between the more common cause of bone loss and what I had. As I left his office I said “But what about my abdominal symptoms?” He said, “Go see a Gastroenterologist.” So the diagnosis about the osteoporosis led indirectly to the diagnosis and discovery of a 7 cm tumor in my colon. He was the fourth kind of doctor I had gone to for help. Persistence is the key to getting an accurate diagnosis. Trust your instincts if you are in touch with your own body and continue to question the doctors until you get the proper diagnosis.

In fairness to my PCP, she had ordered a colonoscopy 5 years before the diagnosis that was 100% clear, and she had conducted all the other usual tests which were all negative for cancer. The hyperparathyroidism diagnosis then threw everyone off track, delaying for another few months the cancer diagnosis. I taught two equine-facilitated learning workshops at my Borderlands Center in February into March of 2014, but it was obvious to everyone something was wrong. In mid-March I was attending a gathering that Leif Hallberg had set up with my help in Sonoita for a group of EFL-EFP colleagues from all over the country. That Saturday I suddenly collapsed after going to the bathroom and started shaking uncontrollably. Carlene Holder Taylor prayed for me with the rest of the group in support. My friend Cate drove me to the hospital in Tucson where my daughter Jennifer met us in the emergency room. I was so looking forward to spending another day with friends and colleagues, but that was not going to happen. Instead Tanya Bailey, Leif and their husbands visited me in the hospital before heading back home.

I had seen my PCP 2 days earlier and we had set up an appointment with a Gastroenterologist for the following Tuesday. Instead I ended up in the hospital for 5 days with sepsis, a potentially fatal blood infection. On Monday I had the colonoscopy and as they wheeled me out of recovery the doctor said, “I’m sorry, it’s cancer.” My response: “Okay,” like no big deal! Drugs were talking for sure as my head was still very fuzzy. However, I clearly remember thinking that my mother had had colon cancer and she was fine after surgery. Then I made a conscious decision to trust God to put the right people in my life to help me through this. For some reason I was not afraid. Maybe it was an “ignorance is bliss” kind of thing. Little did I know at the time how hard it was going to be. I’m convinced my decision to trust the Universe to take care of me was a wise one.

On the fourth day in the hospital I met my team of oncologists. My daughters Jennifer and Alexa were both there. The team consisted of a surgeon, a radiology oncologist (Dr. Neuschatz) and the primary oncologist (Dr. Brooks). A PET scan was ordered and it showed that the tumor was in a place that would be difficult to remove surgically, so I never really knew the surgeon. After I was discharged on the 5th day I was given two days to go home, pack some things up, arrange for someone to care for my 3 dogs, 2 cats and 12 horses while I underwent 6 weeks of treatment. Not an easy task. It was surreal trying to pack clothes and think of what else I should take with me. I had no idea I would be away from home and my precious animals for 4 months.

Alexa took charge of finding us a house to rent in Tucson for a few months. She flew home to Oceanside, packed up her 1-½ year old daughter Sydney with the help of her husband Dom and drove back to take care of me during treatment. The house was 3 minutes from Jennifer and Jeff’s home and 15 minutes from my doctors. Jennifer was in charge of organizing meals at least 5 nights week, and her friends and Agape Dressage students really came through. I always knew there were some really good cooks in that group!

Alexa, Jen and I met with Dr. Brooks and Dr. Neuschatz to go over my treatment plan. We spent well over an hour with Dr. Brooks going over the details of the cocktail of drugs I’d be getting at Arizona Oncology in addition to the type of chemotherapy. The other drugs are designed to minimize the nasty side effects that can happen with chemo. In addition I’d have 20 minutes of targeted radiation Monday through Friday for 6 weeks. During weeks one and five I’d have a 24 hours a day infusion of chemotherapy that I carried in a fanny pack on those weeks. The goal was to shrink the tumor enough that they could then surgically remove what was left and stop it from spreading anywhere else. I told my doctors I needed them to help me get well by October 2014 because I was supposed to participate in a research project into the effects of an equine-facilitated learning exercise on older adults. Not the usual request they get!

It was overwhelming to hear what the plan included. I needed time to process all that information. The next few days were surreal as I packed, said goodbye to the dogs, cats and horses. My two oldest, amazing therapy horses, Crackers and Serra June were 33 and 32 and showing their age. Would I see them again? All 3 dogs were seniors. How would they do without me around? Emotionally this was the hardest part of dealing with cancer. It also became a motivating factor as my desire to move back home was one of my main goals. This was a crash course in letting go and trusting God and the Universe to be with me through everything and keep my animals safe. As someone who on occasion has been accused of being a control freak this was obviously one of the lessons for me to learn.

From the beginning my doctors acknowledged that patients who maintain a positive attitude have a better outcome than those who don’t. I knew I had a tremendous support system from family friends and even Facebook. I also had the benefit of working with horses for most of my life. I learned a valuable lesson from my first horse as an adult. I bought Bex Pasaadi (Saadi) as a green broke 3 year-old bay Arabian gelding and had him until he died at 27 from a tumor in his sinus cavity. He was an exceptionally intelligent horse and wonderful fun to ride, always enjoying getting out and exploring new areas. At 23 he had surgery to remove a benign tumor behind his left eye. At 24 the tumor came back, and he was given 6-8 months to live. Nobody told the horse the prognosis, and he lived another 3 years. So I never asked my prognosis because I didn’t want that possibility in my mind.

In deciding what I could do to help to heal my cancer I decided to talk to my body. The book Hidden Messages in Water by Masaru Emoto gave me the idea because our bodies are about 60-65% water. This might seem crazy, but it sure wasn’t going to make me worse. The book is about the author’s discovery of the impact of words on water. I told my tumor it could go because I had learned what I needed to learn. Then I asked my T-cells to find the cancer cells and go after them. Finally, I thanked my body, or Earth Suit as my friend Barbara calls it, for taking such good care of me. My gratitude was genuine. A friend suggested I see myself at some future event and set that as a goal. The research worked for that and getting to my granddaughter’s 2nd birthday Dec 20th was another goal. My doctor’s had a treatment plan, and I had my own adjunctive plan for healing to go with theirs. The prayers and healing thoughts and energy sent by so many was truly inspiring. The final result was a clean scan in July 2014 and no need for surgery. Dr. Brooks said to keep doing what I had been doing because it was working. Three years later Dr. Brooks is starting to believe in the power of horses to help people heal.

Snapshots of the Journey

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    First ride after treatment.
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    Happy to be home.
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    With Sydney, my inspiration.
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    With Sydney, as treatment progressed.
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    Reunion with my dogs.
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    Early in treatment.
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    At Relay for Life.