‘This can’t be the end for me’: rider defies cancer and life-changing surgery to take on eventing challenge

A rider who within 12 months has been diagnosed with cancer and undergone major surgery to remove all the organs from her pelvic cavity is now aiming to complete the Wobbleberry challenge.

Rachel Copping underwent a pelvic exenteration in May, as the cancer in her cervix, for which she had been treated, had spread.

She spent five weeks in hospital, and now has two stomas, as both her bladder and bowel were removed in the radical surgical treatment.

“It was either have that or I wouldn’t have any life – I’d die,” Rachel told H&H.

“They didn’t tell me how long I’d live for; I didn’t ask.

“I just thought, I don’t want to die yet. I was 36 then, and I thought this isn’t the end for me, it can’t be.”

Rachel was diagnosed with cervical cancer last September. She underwent chemotherapy and brachytherapy – a form of internal radiotherapy – and her doctors were positive about her prognosis.

When Rachel started showing bowel symptoms, it was at first thought this was an effect of the radiation, then that just a hysterectomy might be effective – but later scans found the cancer had spread and the exenteration was needed.

“It’s strange because although everyone says it was major surgery, I still don’t really believe it was; I don’t believe so much of me has been taken away, and although I still have the two stomas, I’m no different in myself,” she said.

“I’m in pain most days and it’s a struggle to get out of bed but I don’t see myself as having had cancer or major surgery; if I was in a line-up and someone asked all those who had cancer to step up, I wouldn’t, as I’d think ‘that’s not me’.

“The hardest thing is that a year ago, I didn’t feel ill, but now, after it all, I feel worse than I ever have. I understand it’s saved my life but it’s also hard to really understand why I’ve put myself through it all when I felt ok.”

In 2017, Rachel bought a two-year-old in hope of eventing her. But when she learned her cancer had spread, and thought she would never ride again, she found her “the best home possible”, with a rider whose horse had to be retired after an injury.

Since her operation, she has been back in the saddle a few times, on her former racer and dressage horse Dushy, on whom she hopes to complete her Wobbleberry challenge.

“For the first two months after the operation, I didn’t want to go to the yard,” Rachel said. “When I saw my horse, all I could see was the life I’d had before and I couldn’t be around it all.

“But my wonderful friend Lili Brooksby-Dalby picked me up from home – and it’s a 40-minute drive – and took me to hers.

“It was funny because I was excited about going, then the closer it got, the more I didn’t want to go. I have issues sleeping, eating, and the aspects of dealing with the stomas; not being in control of them and the noise.

“The anxiety of it all made me try to cancel but she just said ‘Tough, I’m coming to get you.’ She’s got five horses and I sat and watched her ride, and thought ‘I miss this so much’.

It was the time she spent with me that put me back where I belonged. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without her; she’s done more for me than anyone has ever done.”

Straight after this visit, Rachel told her partner she wanted to ride again, and asked the girls at her livery yard to start bringing Dushy back into work.

She was back on board in mid-September.

“I cried,” Rachel said. “As soon as my bottom hit that saddle, I cried, and so did the girls. I think they thought it was pain at first but it was because I felt like me again.

“I’d lost so much of myself; not just physically but mentally, as I’d been in a lot of dark places, and I felt like I was home again.”

Rachel says she did not know where the idea of undertaking the Wobbleberry challenge, to complete a BE80(T) event came from, but that as she had thought she would never event again, the challenge gives her something to aim for.

“I love dressage and so does Dushy but she also loves jumping,” Rachel said. “Even if we get that one chance to do it, we’ll do it.

“Life’s too short to live it on what-ifs. You never think anything’s going to happen to you, but it does, and life’s too precious. You only get one life, so you need to make sure that whatever you want to do, go out and do it. No one else can do it for you.”

Rachel has had to overcome not only the pain caused by adhesions in her remaining intestines, but practical matters such as dismounting without disturbing the bags attached to her stomas. She also has to build her strength back up, as she has lost not only her core strength but also three and a half stone.

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“The issue is that some days I can’t eat, other days, I eat and then I’m sick; it’s a complete nightmare sometimes,” she said.

“But I want to build back up; I want to try to get some physio and a personal trainer, and I’m doing little and often with the riding. Once I’m able to, I’ll start flat lessons again, then do a dressage test, then start jumping and aim to do the event at the end of next season.”

Rachel said completing the challenge would mean she felt she is living the life she wanted.

“I’m not being a martyr, but if I sat there and did nothing, thinking of the what-ifs and not pushing myself – when you get cancer, you can’t let it rule your life, it can’t define you,” she said.

I’ve still got my life and I want to make the most of it.”

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