‘I won’t let this cancer stop me doing what I do’: rider with terminal diagnosis qualifies for national championship

  • A rider who is living with terminal cancer, and who has qualified for the Petplan Equine Summer Area Festival Championships, said the condition “will not stop me doing what I want to do, while I still can”.

    Louise Lea and her own Fanucci finished second in the advanced medium at Field House Equestrian Centre on 16 August. Louise had recently been told her remaining treatment options are “limited”.

    “I’m not in for the sympathy vote,” she said. “You could sit down and cry all day but that wouldn’t achieve anything. The doctor said: ‘You’re so positive and determined’, and he hadn’t met many people like that, but I’m just being me, and being normal, and I’m not ready to go yet.”

    Louise, now 56, has ridden since childhood; she grew up on a farm – “I’m basically a sheep farmer” – and went on to have a small livery yard, then got into dressage about 10 years ago.

    She was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer in 2017, and had a mastectomy, but in 2020, it returned, and spread to her spine and then her liver.

    After her final chemotherapy in 2017, she went to the Netherlands on a horse-shopping trip, and found “Fungus”, so named as he had the remnants of ringworm on his face and “it just stuck!”

    “He wasn’t my first choice as I wanted a black or a chestnut, so of course I got a bay,” Louise said. “We bought him back in January 2018 and we’ve been here ever since.”

    During Covid, Louise met Emily Watts, who now coaches her.

    “She’s so lovely and inspirational; she shouts at me in a very nice way!” she said. “She’s very uplifting and positive, whoever the person and whatever they’re doing.”

    Emily was with Louise on Tuesday at the Area Festival.

    “I came out of the ring in tears,” Louise said. “I’m not a crying, emotional person but I always forget my tests because my brain’s so mixed up 95% of the time. I went down the centre line and couldn’t remember any more. The judge said ‘Circle and half-pass’ and it all came back to me, and it was probably the best test I’ve ever done.

    “It all fell into place and Emily was  ‘Oh my god, you only forgot it once!’ The one before, I think I’d forgotten it three times, so I was really chuffed.”

    Emily, who helps untack Fungus and wash him off at shows as Louise gets “out of puff”, was doing so when the result was confirmed.

    “She was screeching ‘You came second, get your jodhpurs back on!’ Louise said. I didn’t expect it, just hoped to survive my test.

    “Four days before, they’d told me in hospital I didn’t have many treatment options left, but this made up for it. It was lovely.”

    Louise has seen a consultant about possible other options and drug trials but is doubtful whether the latter will suit her, as they are only trial treatments. The plan is for the treatment to do what it can, and there are other chemotherapy options available.

    “I asked the doctor about other people who had liver cancer and he said one lady he saw died the next day, another man lived 17 years,” she said. “I was given two to four years to live, two years ago and I’m still here; it’s aggressive but you have to keep plodding on.

    “I do get really tired, and some days I think ‘I’ve got to go and muck out’ but then it’s ‘No, get up there, if it takes all day, it takes all day’. That’s how it is.”

    Louise helps with the sheep on good days, and the other animals.

    “You can’t waste those precious days,” she said. “I did cry last week when they told me there wasn’t a lot they could do but I’m going on. It can’t be ‘Woe is me’, it has to be get off your arse and go and do something.

    “None of us knows what will happen tomorrow. With something like this, you do tend to live life to the full, and you notice things. Flowers or a sunset; you stand and stare a bit, and think ‘That’s nice’. It helps put things into perspective, if it’s a bad day, that’s a nice thing. I find a large glass of wine helps too – just don’t tell the oncologist!”

    Louise has chemo every week for two weeks – she moved one session back to be able to compete at Field House – and has to deal with the side effects, but she says doing things, whatever those things are and whatever is possible, helps.

    “Time is so precious and you don’t notice till something like this,” she said. “There’s the phrase, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you are’. I work hard through my chemo and think if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been on that horse and coming second on Tuesday. You’ve got to grab life, get hold of it, give it a good shake and get on with it.

    “Get yourself off the chair; that’s the hardest bit, to stand up and put one foot in front of the other, then crack on and keep going. You’ve got to break the habit of sitting there and feeling sorry for yourself.”

    Louise said this “pull yourself together” mindset helps her, and she is looking forward to the championships at Arena UK in October.

    “We’re going down the night before and I’ve said no drinking, except maybe one, one large one,” she said. “It’s about being positive, even in everyday life. Get going, live it. You only get one life; live it to the full. This isn’t going to stop me doing what I want to do, while I still can.”

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