I have been thinking about writing this for some time.

Over the past year I’ve been waiting for some kind of conclusion to be able to feel like I can tell a story. The truth, as I’m learning, is there isn’t a conclusion as long as I’m here to write so I might as well get to it. 

A little over a year ago I heard from my OB that there was a small cluster of calcifications found on my mammogram and that the radiologist was suggesting we do a biopsy to follow up on it. Don’t stop reading. This is where I would typically stop if I were the reader. I often look away from things I find personally scary—this topic being one of them.

I have a family history of breast cancer and always had sort of a low grade fear that it was something I would deal with in my lifetime. What I hadn’t anticipated is just how quickly it was going to come into the picture.

A biopsy turned into a diagnosis and connecting with friends on the next best step. I found myself in incredible care, and I will always be grateful for that. Looking back on the past year, the hardest point was going through the slow motion landslide of being diagnosed. I felt very out of control, with slightly worse news around every corner. 

During the countless mammograms, biopsies, sonograms, MRIs it wasn’t thinking of my friends and family that calmed me down. If anything, those thoughts made me more anxious. What centered me, calmed me, grounded me was thinking about riding my horse. After a failed MRI attempt where my tactic had been deep breathing to calm myself, I tried another self-prescribed meditation, think about riding.

During that fall, I continued to ride and show on the weekends. Mondays and Tuesdays I would go to the city for pokes and prods and on the weekends I was in Greenwich, Harrisburg or Lexington.

Those rounds are what got me through this process. I would lay in the MRI tube and meticulously go through my rounds from the previous weekend. Eyes closed, I would think to myself; ‘trot in, walk, left lead canter, get him up to pace and out in front of my leg. Jump number one, easy seven shaping to number two, let him jump it. Look for number three, ride him forward through the turn so the first one shows up, then be patient; don’t rush.

I would think about the weight of the reins in my hands. The quiet communication. The trust and hum of power underneath me, feeling in control but also exhilarated. The accomplishment of a well executed round was like slotting a last puzzle piece into place. 

I quickly understood why people continue to work through difficult periods of their life. The search for that quiet became my everyday goal.

I was surrounded mostly by people who had no idea what was going on in my private life. I would often squeeze my beloved horse around the neck with a single tear escaping my eye. Pressing my face into him until I could take a deep breath. He didn’t know how much he was giving me and he gave without hesitation. 

I rounded the New Year with the new knowledge that the procedure I had done in November was not going to be sufficient. My doctor wanted to go ahead with a mastectomy to be sure that we weren’t testing fate.

Her delivery of this was matter-of-fact. She told me to take time to process but that we should go ahead with surgery in the first quarter of the year. We decided on a date just after the Wellington show season finished. I was 38. 

I spent the season mentally preparing for what I knew was going to be a life-changing event. I felt simultaneously grateful and in disbelief. I knew that there were people in my shoes that didn’t have such a clear-cut solution.

I went about the winter as usual in many ways. What changed was my mindset, all of the sudden I realized that everything I consider to be my day-to-day could turn into things I used to do. My life came into such a clear focus. I wanted to go the extra mile and be proud of everything I was doing. I told myself that I was limitless, and the only thing that had limited me in the past was self-doubt.

I knew I was coming into a stretch of time where I not only wouldn’t be able to ride for a while post surgery, but I could also be facing a season of therapies that would change my ability to even get out of bed in the morning. 

The last day of Wellington finished on a high. I was surrounded by my core group, who knew exactly what I was facing in the coming weeks. The Friday of that week I had been all over the place in my head. I had been going for blood draws and pre-op appointments to get myself ready for the surgery the following week. I was scattered. I rode fine, but made a mistake in the last line of my class, I was unfocused.

I managed to qualify for the Grand Prix by the skin of my teeth. I spent Saturday centering myself mentally. That Sunday morning before the Grand Prix, I felt eerily calm. I didn’t think of anything deep or meaningful, all I thought was ‘pick up the reins, strike the canter I need, let him travel to number one and stay out of his way.” 

I sat quietly up there, while my plan poured out into the perfect flow state we all strive for. 

©Ashley Neuhof Photography

I held on to the memory of those rounds that day as I went in for my surgery the following week. The feeling of dropping the reins to pat my horse on both sides of his neck after a foot perfect round.  Thinking about my children, or my family was not calming, reminding myself how simultaneously quiet and strong I can be was. 

I recovered at home quietly in the spring, the news that my pathology was clear was the best news I have ever received in my life. Relief poured out of me.

I focused on being strong again. I set my sights on what made me feel like me, riding my horse. Every time I go to pick up the reins my brain reminds me that I feel slightly numb at the front of my chest. Maybe that will go away eventually, but in the meantime, it doesn’t bother me. It just reminds me that I’m limitless. 

October is breast cancer awareness month. I chose to share my story in hope of influencing someone that has been putting off annual check ups. As much as the anxiety of the unknown is hard to wrangle, staying ahead of our health is our responsibility to ourselves, and those that love us. Though we are living in such challenging times at large, we can’t forget to look after ourselves along the way.

Go ahead and have the check up. Take care of yourself and know that you will be able to handle what lies ahead of you. Especially when you’ve already spent hours holding the reins to navigate challenging and unpredictable courses.