When the phone rang that late Friday afternoon in September, I answered without a 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 the glass half-filled even if it had a crack in it, 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 with an uncertain destination. 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 might 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, triple negative may mean a more virulent type of cancer.
As a writer, I enjoy doing the research necessary to add realistic detail to my novels, yet I shrank from the idea of delving into the intricacies of my cancer. Afraid that I’d be overwhelmed by statistics and the horror stories of other people’s illnesses, I steered clear of chat groups and internet searches. I knew myself well enough to realize that in my vulnerable state I needed to learn some facts—but not too many—about what I might experience. 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 to pursue. 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.
My horse Kosi, was often the subject of my camera’s focus, as were the mani-cured acres of the beautiful farm where he was boarded. There 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 battle. First and foremost, I was determined to continue my daily trips to the farm to spend time with Kosi. However, I now took a different route to get there. Instead of the interstate highway that I normally drove, I chose quiet backcountry roads. I wasn’t up for the intense concentration required to compete for space on I-75. Besides, the winding roads I now drove gave me glimpses of cows, horses, goats and other farm animals in their pastures whose antics often made me smile. If the trip took me a few extra minutes, the inner peace was well worth it.
I needed to do more. So, for the first three months of my chemotherapy 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.
I envisioned my medical team piloting a wooden raft across a swamp, buffeted by winds that pushed 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, was our destination: a lush pasture under a sunny sky. Along the fence line at the water’s edge, my handsome horse stood, ears pricked, watching—awaiting my arrival. Next to him, my husband, my friends, and off in the distance the 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 I 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 Writers Association’s Royal Palm Literary Awards competition. The award was for my 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 marked 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 my equine partner, my friend, my confidant—and my therapist who eats hay.