March 5, 2021
A truly welcome respite…in February 2021. A year into the pandemic. The longest of the winter months. Holidays over, settling into the winter rhythms of chilly air, falling snow, and continued early darkness. With one big caveat: the privilege of an annual escape for the past several years to Aiken, SC with my spouse, our friend, and our horses.
The first year we did this together was 2017. Our trainer joined us with several of her other students and horses, to spend two weeks riding outside in a more temperate climate with better footing, in preparation for spring competitions. It was my first ever trip to Aiken, and it is a form of horse paradise in a lovely town, filled with small businesses, fun restaurants, and artsy shops.
It was such a wonderful experience that we immediately planned another outing for the following year, Feb. 2018.
And that trip didn’t disappoint…
But little did I know what would unfold in the months immediately after our return. My friend’s horse suffered a life ending condition a month after our return, and in late March, I discovered a breast mass, and set up an appointment with my primary care doctor to order a diagnostic mammogram. I told no one.
It took a couple weeks to be seen, and another wait to have the imaging. Meanwhile, I went on with my job and my life and even competed in a jumper horse show that April, collecting a ribbon along the way.
I knew I was likely facing a cancer diagnosis. And there it was, in big bold letters on the radiology report I held in my hand as I waited for the radiologist to speak with me: highly suspicious for malignancy. And subsequently confirmed on biopsy, May 2, 2018. My previously solitary expedition into Cancerland was about to enlarge as I notified immediate family members and a few close friends.
Well, needless to say, lots of things in my life changed after that, but the annual trip to Aiken lived on!
In Feb. 2019, the dates of the trip aligned with the interval between my targeted chemo infusions, and I had completed my 31 rounds of radiation therapy the month before in January that year, so off we went! My energy and stamina took a bit of a hit that year, but we pressed on and did what we could, which was much more than I had hoped for.
In Feb. 2020, I was officially out of the active treatment phase, except for my daily (joint pain provoking) anastrazole to help prevent recurrence. We had just arrived in Aiken when word of the mysterious virus identified in Wuhan, China started to appear in the news.
We didn’t know then that the entire world would soon be impacted in so many ways by this insidious microbe.
On my return home that year, I developed symptoms that were consistent with coronavirus. At that time, in early March 2020, there was not yet any kind of testing available, and we were just starting to learn about what consequences awaited those with severe infection. Treatment for the most acutely ill was supportive only.
I stayed in bed (uncharacteristically!) for a full 5 days, with fever, chills, body aches, upper back pain and a cough, and slowly recovered. It was my hope that I DID have the SARS CoV-2 virus, and potentially developed some immunity as well. No one else in my family was affected with symptoms at that time.
This year, a trip to Aiken seemed to require a significant risk/benefit analysis.
Traveling to another state had its potential risk factors. But all of our activities would be outside, and our friend, a physician working directly with COVID affected patients, had already been vaccinated, so could do the necessary grocery shopping etc.
I struggled some with the decision making. But my detour into Cancerland swayed me toward doing the trip. One thing a cancer diagnosis does is make you very aware of your own mortality, where you lose the assumption that you’ll have additional chances, and that made the difference for me. To pass up an opportunity to leave the winter doldrums behind and spend time with my spouse and my friend doing what we love to do—riding for my friend and me and carriage driving for my husband, well, it was a no brainer. Take all the prescribed precautions and GO!
And go we did!
And what a wonderful few weeks it was! It was rainy and colder than we had hoped for the first week but it didn’t even matter.
Reflecting on what was different this year…
We arranged our own lodging for ourselves and for our horses, both at different places from the years before. Our house was perfect for the three of us, with room enough to be together or to be separate.
With the help of our trainers at home, we connected with and scheduled multiple lessons with highly accomplished trainers in Aiken, who had never seen us ride before. Best of all, from my perspective, no one who was teaching us or hosting us knew anything of my detour into Cancerland.
I could, temporarily at least, leave that part of my life behind. I can’t even begin to describe how surprisingly liberating that was.
Arriving at the place our horses were to stay, it was such a relief to offload them from their twelve hour trailer ride and turn them out into the lovely pasture that was ours to use for the duration of our stay, along with their stalls. They took a quick tour of their paddock, trotting and cantering along, finally able to stretch their legs after standing in a trailer for twelve hours since our departure at 3am.
Luckily for us, another person keeping her horses there was super helpful and great to be around—we developed a really nice relationship while we were there. And then it occurred to me: I had not met or even talked to a new person ever since the pandemic shut down society as we once knew it nearly a year ago.
That alone felt like a great present to unwrap—a huge privilege. That this new acquaintance was at the same farm with us and our respective horses and had similar interests was the cherry on top of the sweetest sundae.
My friend and I scheduled our first session with one of the trainers who had been recommended to us. I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what the lesson would be like, but I always have a tendency to some degree of performance anxiety when riding in a new situation. It turned out to be a highly memorable opportunity. I got really helpful feedback on my horse and on my riding. And I wasn’t nervous at ALL once she started teaching. The instructor was super encouraging and highly motivating. “That horse is a keeper! He’s a once in a lifetime horse!” And in a subsequent lesson: “Perfectionism is not allowed. Strive for good enough!”
My friend had a similar impression and response to this trainer’s teaching style. It was so good to hear such a positive opinion of my riding and my horse from such an accomplished and experienced professional rider/coach. She was so unexpectedly down to earth and encouraging given her own extraordinary accomplishments, which include riding and placing well at the highest levels in the sport of eventing, nationally and internationally.
And yes, it was so invigorating just to be meeting and talking with new (to me) people! I don’t think any of us have truly and fully processed what an impact the pandemic has had on us in ways large and small.
Another set of lessons unfolded with yet another accomplished international rider/trainer. Again, any nervousness I felt melted away as we began our lesson. We were jumping cross country in a beautiful setting, and were the only riders and instructor in that part of the grounds. He directed us to ride a series of jumps with turns and water and hills along the way. I don’t know who had more fun, me or my trusty steed.
We galloped and leapt over every type of barrier we encountered. And did it pretty well. Corrected a few things at his direction and did it again. Even better than before.
At the conclusion of our lesson adventure, I remarked to the coach, “As you probably noticed, cross country jumping is Beau’s favorite thing.” He replied with a grin, “I think it is yours too!”
With each lesson, I quickly became a better rider. I would never have predicted that riding with ‘new to me’ professionals would create such a fantastic experience, and give me the confidence, tools and strategies to build on my existing skill set so quickly and without my usual angst about performance!
I also got pushed out of my comfort zone when I was offered a chance to be the navigator in my husband’s first ever carriage driving competition. We kidded his coach that if our marriage survived me in the role of a legitimate back seat driver, we would be raising a toast afterwards! On competition day, he completed his dressage test, we waited for the countdown for the next phase, and then off we went, rapidly navigating trails through the woods in a timed sequence and numerous turns through a series of cones in the fields. A great adrenaline rush. I loved every single minute of it.
That same week, we joined his coach (a winner of numerous National and international driving championships) as she drove us with her two horse team, doing elements of a high level competition course. Suddenly she offered me a turn as driver. This was WAYYYYY out of my comfort zone. With no advance notice. And no way to graciously turn down this once in a lifetime opportunity. And so…..I took the reins. Said a silent prayer. Hoped to not mess up too badly. And quickly discovered the lack of similarity in how you drive a horse versus how you ride a horse. And yes, we took a few unexpected turns. But with my accomplished driving coach by my side, I managed to not have any humans or horses harmed during the course of my novice attempt at driving.
This experience truly mirrors where I am in my cancer detour as well. How would I ever have learned to cope with the ‘slings and arrows’ of a cancer diagnosis so effectively if not for my oncology social worker, my extraordinary emotional well- being coach ~ by my side to help me recognize, identify, name, and process the numerous twists and turns of the cancer experience.
It isn’t easy to figure it all out on your own. To have the benefit of supportive, validating professional feedback and guidance—in riding, carriage driving, or in Cancerland—or life in general—what an incredible difference it makes.
Life offers everyone significant challenges. This pandemic year has brought even more of them to bear on all of us, for longer than we would have thought possible.
It is our human (and for many of us, our animal!) connections that help us to make it through all of these challenges, in whatever innovative ways we can use to still be there for each other to maintain a level of togetherness and support.
I arrived home from my three weeks in Aiken, my “respite care”, physically exhausted and mentally energized.
Being in Aiken this year was an exceptional gift—It actually helped to lift the enormity of the pandemic and all that it entails, and to soften my own cancer detour. None of the individuals that I encountered there (in a socially distant safely masked outdoor way) had any idea that I have been in Cancerland—it was truly liberating to not wear the cancer label and to feel strong and to ride really well in the presence of some of the most accomplished riders/coaches in the country.
To do this with my husband, my friend , and with my horse and my pup fills me with appreciation and gratitude. I did not watch TV or listen to news for the past 3 weeks.
It was horses, nature, and sunrise to sunset activity, punctuated by meals and a little midday rest. The house we stayed in was super comfortable and had gorgeous views. I think it is safe to say I became fully immersed in mindfulness and gratitude. It has been a tremendous form of self care and self kindness. A true respite in every sense of the word.
“The meeting of two eternities, the past and the future… is precisely the present moment.”
– Henry David Thoreau
“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”
– Abraham Maslow
“In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.”
– Leonardo da Vinci