‘I will never sit down and die’: rider with terminal cancer hopes to inspire others to embrace life

  • A rider who is receiving palliative care for cancer is working her way through a bucket list and hopes to inspire others to “live and embrace life”.

    Aberdeenshire-based Jo Hare, 62, was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2012 and underwent treatment, including quadrantectomy surgery [a partial mastectomy]. After chemotherapy, Jo was left with nerve damage in her hands and thighs, which made dealing with her homebred two-year-old geldings Middlefield Sir Federico (Freddie) and Middlemuir Jimmothy (Jimmy) difficult for her. Jo formed a friendship with coach Fiona Mackinnon, whom she met at a Kelly Marks clinic that year and Fiona began helping Jo with her horses.

    “Fiona started the horses off for me and when Freddie was backed aged four and a half she helped me find ways to ride. Because of the damage in my thighs my legs kept going backwards – I once bodysurfed in canter and came flying off,” Jo told H&H.

    “I became terrified of getting off because I didn’t know if my legs would support me so I would be talking to poor Fiona for 10 minutes before summoning up the courage to get off. But Fiona trained Freddie to stand still so if I did fall, he would just look down at me and allow me to climb up his leg. Fiona came up with all these ideas such as the straps that connect from the girth to the stirrups, a neck strap and a balance strap – we always found a way round everything.”

    Jo said as her breast cancer had spread into the lymph nodes she could never be given the all clear, but for a period her health improved and she became stronger, during which time she enjoyed competing with Freddie in dressage leagues held at Fiona’s yard Balhagan Equestrian. Meanwhile Jimmy went to Colin Hamilton to be backed and produced.

    In March 2019, Jo found out the breast cancer had spread to her brain and she was diagnosed with leptomeningeal carcinoma [where cancerous cells have spread to the thin layers of tissue that cover the brain].

    “One day my face fell and I went to the doctor and was told I had trigeminal neuralgia [sudden severe facial pain] so I was getting treatment for that with steroids, then one day I woke up and it was like I had had a stroke. That was the beginning of finding out the cancer had gone to my brain,” she said.

    “When I was diagnosed, I was told to go home and put my affairs in order as I had three to eight weeks to live. My husband Jim cried and I just got mad. I just thought ‘No, I’m not dying and I’m going to do everything I can’.”

    Jo was offered radiotherapy to alleviate some of the symptoms but she turned this down owing to possible long-term side effects on her brain.

    “I was having trouble eating, I had double vision and the pain in my head was awful. The oncologist said the radiotherapy would help but I said ‘well what about the long term? and he said ‘you won’t live long-term’ – but I refused it,” she said.

    Jo is on palliative care and also receives mistletoe therapy, which is used to boost the immune system. She continues to ride Freddie, who is also competed in British Eventing competitions by Fiona, and has been working through a “bucket list” with Fiona, including a visit to a distillery, watching Freddie and Fiona and Jimmy and Colin compete in showing at Blair Castle International, and Jo herself riding side-saddle at the Caledonian Showing Championships.

    “Fiona rides side-saddle and I used to in my 20s and trained with showing producer Lynn Russell. So we had Freddie fitted with a side-saddle and I’ve had some lessons from Jane Pryor. With my legs I find side-saddle much easier,” said Jo.

    “At the Caledonian Championships, Fiona persuaded me to ride in the concour d’elegance evening performance and we were fourth, then she suggested we do the Evergreen partnership, which is an in-hand class for combinations with the combined age over of over 60. I was scared thinking I wouldn’t manage to run and if I fell it would be so embarrassing. I just hung on to Freddie and ran like the clappers! We were fifth out of 15.”

    Jo said having a good support system around her with her horses has helped her, and says Fiona and Colin support her not only as trainers, but as friends.

    “Fiona pushes me in my riding and I need that. What she has done with Freddie is incredible, he knows if I’m running out of breath and I give a big sigh to stop and go back to Fiona or my husband. He knows when I feel fine and he knows when to protect me,” she said.

    “Next on the bucket list is a beach ride, I want to do dressage at novice level, and I haven’t told Fiona yet but I want to jump side-saddle! Fiona has also qualified Freddie for the Sir Lancelots final at the National Side Saddle Show next August, which is amazing. We keep having to add things to the bucket list because I’m still here.”

    Jo said despite the fact her cancer is terminal, she has not spent a day in bed, and credits Freddie and Jimmy for “keeping her going”.

    “They can be real jokers. When I had my first bout of treatment when the horses were young I’d lost all my hair and I’d wear a wig because I didn’t like looking at myself with a bald head. Freddie and Jimmy realised my hair was detachable and many a time there was a bald woman running around the field after two horses fighting over a wig!,” she said.

    “The horses helped me with humour, and sometimes you have to just laugh at yourself. I will never just sit down and die. I see so many people give up when they hear bad news, they don’t see a way out of it. I’m lucky I always find the positive in any situation and I say I was born happy, but I think more people need to be like that and if I can inspire anyone to get up off their backside when they get a bad diagnosis, to live and embrace life, that’s what matters to me.”

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