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Senior Horse Care Strategies: Equine Cancer

Equine Cancer

“I’m not scratching your wiener.”

It was January, and after an early morning ride we stood in the aisleway of the barn, saddle removed, and there he was again- in a stance he’d been repeating after every ride over the past week. Rear left leg pulled all the way up and hip extended out, like a dog peeing on a bush, reaching his nose as far underneath his body as he could, pointing to a place between his hind legs.

“Itchy?” I had asked. I scratched his belly, that wasn’t enough. I scratched his inner thighs, that wasn’t enough, “Listen, Derby, we do a lot of things together, but scratching your wiener is where I draw the line in our relationship.” But after the 5th theatrical performance I womaned up, put on a latex glove, and went into the sheath for ‘exploratory surgery’. Maybe it just REALLY needs to be cleaned in there, I thought. But then my hand hit it- a mass. “What the hell…..” I felt around some more, and when I removed my gloved hand it was bloody.

My vet came out later that week to inspect the mass. He took a biopsy and the results came back as we had feared. The C-word. Cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma.

We treated it with cisplatin (chemotherapy) from January to June. It shrunk, then seemed to grow. The sheath swelled, it went back to normal.

In April I arrived at the barn one morning, and Derby was 3-legged lame. He had a fat hind leg that was warm to the touch. A huge infection was brewing for no outwardly apparent reason. Antibiotics, wrap, hand walk, repeat.

And by the way, your horse also has Cushings disease now.

2016 is not our year.

In July I made the decision. I told my vet, “Let’s just cut this thing out.”

I don’t want him to be uncomfortable anymore. I don’t want it to spread. But also the selfish reasons: I want my kid to ride him in leadline and short stirrup at local shows. I want him around for the next milestones in my life, just like he was there for junior high, high school, undergrad, grad school, my wedding, buying my first home, and every other small insignificant event in my life. I want him to supervise as I develop my next horse someday.

And if he’s not there, who is supposed to lick my hair and drop hay in my eyes when I cry.

August. Derby went into surgery. Originally I thought I’d want to be at the hospital, but honestly staying away was probably best for both of us (and let’s be honest, the staff at the clinic didn’t need to be dealing with a lady laying on the floor bawling with a tub of ice cream screaming for progress updates every 4 minutes). As soon as I thought the surgery might be over I called the clinic. The surgeon said the surgery went well, and Derby had been very smart about standing when he was ready after waking from general anesthesia. The tumor was gone!

But there was more. More tumors that couldn’t be removed right now. More tumors on his penis and urethra. To remove them would mean that Derby would lose his penis, but that wasn’t necessary right now. Currently, the tumors weren’t ulcerated or hurting anything.

I felt like I was getting punched in the gut. Repeatedly. At least ‘Derby’ is a transgender name. If his penis is removed, do I have to mark him as a mare on horse show entries?

It’s really stupid the stupid things you think about when you’re in shock.

I arrived at the clinic about an hour later. I called out to him, and he called out to me. Just like the movies. He was a mess and still groggy from the anesthesia, but standing and fairly alert. Dried sweat all over his body and his flimsy forelock at half mast. He couldn’t control his urine, and his large eyes were watery and a little crusty at the same time. No one comes out of surgery looking pretty. The surgeon came out to talk, and then lent me some brushes. As Derby munched on alfalfa I curried off the salt and tamed the forelock. My proud, narcissistic horse has an image to maintain.

Now he’s home. Here we are. In my imagination I would be making a Facebook post to all my “friends” announcing “DERBY BEAT CANCER!”, even though I hadn’t shared with the majority that he had it in the first place. But here we are. He still has cancer, and now I have decisions to make.

Most importantly, I have to make the decision to let go. Let go of any control I thought I had over his destiny. Let go of the idea that I won’t find peace until we beat it.

I have to find peace within it. No matter how much money or time I throw at the problem, it may not go away. I asked the surgeon, “How do we know, or can we know, that he doesn’t have cancer all inside his body?” I think I knew the answer, but had to ask anyway. The obvious answer is: we don’t know. Not unless we open up his guts, and there’s no point in doing that.

Here we are.

Pema Chodron, a wise and frequently quoted Buddhist nun, has said “nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” I’ve always believed that Derby plans to stick around until he’s done doing just that. And maybe his cancer is going to do the same.

Aging is beautiful and rewarding and sad and ruthless. Life is beautiful and rewarding and sad and ruthless. But this is not the end. I don’t doubt that Derby will make it to be at least 30. He will take my kid to their first horse shows in leadline and short stirrup. He will supervise someday as I teach my next horse. When I cry, he’ll be there. He’ll always be there, even when he’s gone.

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