THE first time Linda Hren fought cancer was bad enough. But getting it back months later was far worse.
Just as she began to feel hair stubble across her bald head, just as she began to settle into her old routine, just as she began to exhale the deep breath of fear she’d inhaled months earlier, it was back.
One day in December 1995, as she threw down hay bales in her barn in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, pain seared through her hip. Worried, she called her oncologist and the seriousness of his voice gave away his suspicions.
The cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, had again spread tumors along her spine, lodged itself in her hip, and threaded through her major organs.
The only way to conquer it was to repeat the grueling process she’d just suffered through for the last year.
Her first thought: “I may’ve beat it once, but how can I beat it twice?”
THE “first time” began a year earlier when she was 35. Doctors initially thought it was the flu but finally diagnosed her with pancreatitis.
After spending two months in the hospital, Linda says doctors sent her home to die … which was tempting.
She didn’t have a husband to tell her about the better days they’d share and the love they’d foster if she made it through. She didn’t have children to tell her about the graduations, weddings and grandchildren she’d one day see if she fought hard enough.
What she did have was a horse. And this is the lifeline she held onto as the next doctor told her she had stage-four cancer, the worst of the four levels.
She tried to concentrate on her horse as tests confirmed, yes, tumors are in your lungs. Yes, tumors are on your spine. Yes, tumors fill the lining around your organs. Yes, tumors cover just about everything except your brain.
She didn’t think things could get much worse. But this was still just the “first time.”
FROM age 8, Linda’s life was consumed by horses. As she got older, she dreamed of buying a colt and being the one to teach it everything it knew, being the first one to ride it, being its rider and buddy.
When her pony died in the early 1990s, Linda decided it was time to find a colt to raise. When she arrived at a farm to look at the colts, she never made it inside the barn. As Linda walked with the owner, she glanced to her side and saw a sloppy pasture with a mare and bay filly standing alone.
“Oh, that’s just my trash filly,” the woman said, adding the young horse was headed to a slaughter auction that Friday.
Linda offered $200, the going horse-meat price, and took home the 7-week-old “trash” filly and named her Mandy.
The shy animal had never been touched, so it took Linda four days before she brushed her fingers against the colt’s brown neck.
Linda raised Mandy just as she’d planned, giving her time to mature on her own, and decided early on she wouldn’t start her on a saddle until she was 3.
But just 11 days before Mandy’s third birthday, Linda’s doctor confirmed for the first time it was cancer and all thoughts of riding Mandy vanished.
WHEN Linda learned she had cancer the second time, she still hadn’t ridden Mandy and by now the horse was almost 4.
Hearing the word “cancer” this time was harder than the first. She was already too familiar with the chemo, the radiation, the ports in her neck, the long stays in isolation, the stem cell harvests, the bone marrow transplants, the blood transfusions, the hearing loss, the infections.
This time, though, Linda was battling something far more damaging, her own despair.
A psychiatrist visited Linda in her hospital bed and used the words “guided imagery.” Visualize something positive; research says it helps cancer patients, the psychiatrist told her.
Try thinking about two armies. The good army is trying to kill the bad army of cancer, she suggested.
“You want me to think about surviving by killing people?” Linda questioned.
Well, think of it as a game where Pac-Man is eating the bad cancer cells, the psychiatrist tried again.
“I suck at video games. I always lose,” Linda answered.
She knew she was being difficult, Linda told the woman, but she didn’t have a lot of hope. “I just want this to be over so I can be with my horse,” she said.
Afterward, Linda sat in her bed and thought about an old children’s show re-run where a horse rescues a boy from a rattlesnake.
Maybe it would work. Linda would be the boy who needs rescued from the cancerous snake. Her horse, Mandy, would stomp on the snake and, with Linda safely on her back, they would gallop into the sunset.
Linda closed her eyes and imagined this vision over and over for months. Her mother, Mary Hren, took photographs of Mandy, and her sister, Shirley Barnhouse, took home movies of the horse in the pasture and brought them to Linda’s bed.
It worked for a while.
But the time came, in the desperate months of that “second time,” when the vision wasn’t enough to sustain Linda. Rather than jumping on Mandy’s back and riding off into the sunset, Linda was dragging herself to the saddle and clinging to it with every ounce of life she had left.
IN fall 1996, Linda came home again. She’d been off work for two years; her life savings from working as the director of a library was gone. The depression was as deep as ever. She just knew the cancer would come back, and she couldn’t bear to see Mandy again, knowing she’d never ride her.
But Linda’s mom knew better. She set off across the pasture with her walker and hobbled back to the house leading Mandy. She tapped on the living room window and Linda glanced up to see Mandy’s questioning face looking in, wondering why she was being ignored. The almost-5-year-old horse still had never been ridden.
Desperation lifted a moment and Linda made a silent deal with God. If she worked hard enough and was able to ride Mandy, the cancer wouldn’t come back. But if she asked for help from anyone, including God, the cancer would return.
It took a year before Linda had the strength to work with her horse again. Mandy was now 6 and not used to being handled. But Linda was anxious; this was part of the deal and she didn’t want that cancer coming back. So she got on Mandy too soon and the horse spooked and bucked Linda to the ground. With bones as fragile as burnt waffles from two years of bone marrow transplants, her wrist shattered at impact.
As Linda was carried away to the hospital, Mandy ran wild and charged everyone who came near her.
That night, when Linda returned home with a cast and pain killers, she stood in the field in the dark, trying to calm the still-frantic horse.
LINDA’S mother died in March 2001 and something inside Linda changed. Asking for help didn’t sound so bad anymore.
A friend told her about trainer Clark Howell and described him as a “natural horse counselor.” He took Mandy and softened the edges, peeled away her aggression and fostered the relationship between Linda and her horse.
In March 2002, Linda rode her horse for the first successful time. It’d been six years since Linda made that deal with God: If she worked hard enough to ride Mandy, the cancer wouldn’t come back.
Now it’s been eight and a half years and she is still cancer-free.
Mandy rescued her, maybe not from the cancer itself but from the depression that came with it. She stomped out those snakes, and now Linda, even if it was a few years later than planned, leapt into the saddle and the two of them turned their backs and rode away.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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Horses of Hope:
Survivors look to future
By Kristy Hebert
UHRICHSVILLE, Ohio – Linda Hren learned firsthand the power of having a horse to love you through an illness.
People feel isolated when they have a major disease, she said. But horses don’t care if you have hair or if you’re forced to visit them in a wheelchair.
“So often people treat you as the disease, not the person,” she said. “Animals and children just see your soul, not your body.”
After suffering the ups and downs of cancer for two years, Hren credits her horse, Mandy, for pulling her through the darkest days.
In 2002, she teamed with other cancer survivors to form Horses of Hope, a group that recognizes horses’ importance in working through severe illness.
The nonprofit group will celebrate the 18th anniversary of National Cancer Survivors Day June 3-5 with the theme A Celebration of Life with Horses.
The free event will be at Karen and Ed Boehm’s farm on Zane Grey Road in Norwich, Ohio.
It will include trail rides, wagon rides, demonstrations and speaker Linda Myer, a psychologist who uses horses in her work with troubled children.
It’s open to the public and will be funded by private donations and proceeds from a silent auction June 4.
To attend or make a donation, contact Hren at 740-922-2490 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Registration is not required but appreciated.