Tag Archives: Cancer

Of Healing and Horses

Cancer Has Its Power And I Have Mine

BarbTerao | Survivor: Breast Cancer   


Recurrence of cancer can be hard to predict and difficult to detect. Some doctors do follow-up tests and scans after cancer treatment to look for new, spreading, or recurring cancers. Mine do not. Since my first breast cancer treatments three years ago, they send me on my way with a quick check-up every six months and a mammogram of my remaining breast once a year. 

But then I was diagnosed with a regional recurrence of cancer a year ago, requiring radiation treatments. Now my oncology team wants me to have a CT scan of my chest. Specifically, they want to look at some nodules in my lung that showed up on my last scan about a year ago. If the nodules grew, that’s a bad sign. The scan is also a chance to look around my entire chest and see if there’s any sign of cancer in there.  I’m grateful to have this CT scan as a follow-up to my latest cancer scare.

As I wait my turn in a little room at the medical center, I look out the open door at a life-size Elvis in the hallway. The cardboard cut-out wears hospital scrubs that inexplicably have HANGRY written all over them. Is the King hungry and angry? I try to think of one of his song lyrics that would make this relevant and can only think of hound dogs and blue suede shoes. Elvis is also sporting green beads and a fuzzy, red Santa hat, which are at least somewhat seasonal. I appreciate a little hospital humor to ease the tension.

Once you’ve had cancer, any scan can be a cause for anxiety, or “scanxiety,” as it is sometimes called. How do I handle my fear during this cancer journey? Strangely, it’s not the tumors I dread most, it’s the treatments and their damages and side effects. I’ve never felt even a twinge from the cancer itself, not at this stage, though there is always the knowledge that it can kill me at some point.

I remember a horse in Tucson, Arizona named Checar. He was a little wild and could probably kill me in certain circumstances, but I was not afraid of him. Part Palomino and part quarter horse, he took my breath away when I saw him in the stables at a resort. I signed up for a trail ride in hopes I could get to know him or at least stroke his long, white mane. Before heading into the sagebrush and saguaro, we gathered in the barn for instruction. The trail guide, Nina, asked, “On a scale of one to ten, how scared are you of horses?”

Eleven,” proclaimed a young man. I was surprised that he would rate his fear that high. With nervous laughter, all the other riders said high numbers as well. 

When it came to me, I wanted to say zero. I’ve been around horses off and on all my life and I knew you had to be careful not to get kicked or thrown. In fact, our daughter Emily had recently had an accident when she and her horse went over a jump. They both fell. Emily broke her arm, requiring surgery and a metal plate. That was scary. But am I afraid of horses? No, I have a healthy respect for them. That’s different. 

I said, “One.

Maybe Nina assigned horses based on those numbers. For whatever reason, she gave me my favorite, Checar. I settled into the saddle in a dream-like state and savored that ride into the desert. Allowing a little distance between me and the other riders, I crooned songs of awe and gratitude to my horse. Patting his warm, strong neck, the color of butterscotch, and running my fingers through his frothy mane, I was enchanted and content. The cacti along the sandy trail saluted as we walked by and the sky went on forever above us. At the end, I dismounted and Nina took the reins to lead the horse back to his stall. He lingered by my side and resisted her pull. She harrumphed that he’d never done that before. 

It’s because I sang to him,” I said.

What is my cancer song? I do not love this sneaky disease. But I don’t have to let it overtake my life with anxiety. Cancer has its power and I have mine. I have a friend, an extraordinary man in our community, who found ways to communicate with his brain tumor with peace in his heart. Perhaps my song, in honor of Checar, can be about the power of life, love, and courage rather than death, defeat, and despair.

The scan I had almost a year ago showed a “metastatic enlarged lymph node” under my right arm. That was alarming! But this scan doesn’t have to be. I try to keep my nerves in check and focus on my breathing until I am called into the imaging room. I lie on my back and let the machine slide me through the donut hole of the scanner. 

I was told the results would show up as a message from my doctor in a week. They came in that very day when we got home. The nodules hadn’t grown and there were no signs of cancer or other concerns. I’m all clear at the end of the year. The work to stay clear lies ahead.


BarbTerao's picture

Barbara Terao is a tree hugger and people hugger living with her husband on an island in Puget Sound in Washington. Their two daughters and their families live nearby. Barbara’s writing about nature, psychology, and life appears in magazines, journals, and on her blog, Of the Earth. She began treatment for HER2 and hormone-positive breast cancer in February 2017 and had a recurrence in 2019 which was successfully treated.

More Posts on the I Had Cancer website by BarbTerao 


A Book, a Boy, and a Yew Tree

How did I not know about the inspired and inspiring 2011 book by Patrick Ness? Inuit people sometimes call a storyteller isumataq, “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.” That is what the author, and thereby the monster in A Monster Calls, does. He tears open the known world, at the worst time in a boy’s life, to make room for the kind of truth that leads to wisdom. Illustrated by Jim Kay and based on an idea from the late author Siobhan Dowd, the book won both the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal, and then was made into a movie. Which is what brought it to my attention: I caught the last half of the movie on HBO and was enchanted from my first glimpse of the yew tree “monster.” (I love trees! Also, taxotere, the medicine from yews, helped me overcome cancer.)

In this book, Conor O’Malley’s mother has cancer and it keeps getting worse. Conor is beside himself and it doesn’t help that he is often visited at seven minutes past midnight by the yew tree that’s come walking down the hill from the cemetery, bursting into his room uninvited to tell him tales.

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What he needs, Conor insists, is medicine to cure his mother, not stories. The monster tells him, “The yew is a healing tree. It is the form I most choose to walk in.” Yet the monster offers no clear answers to the boy, challenging him, “You still do not know why you called me, do you? You still do not know why I have come walking. It is not as if I do this every day, Conor O’Malley.”

“It wasn’t just to hear terrible stories that make no sense,” Conor says.

“Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth,” the monster says before departing in a gust of wind.

Without giving away the stories within the story, just know there are no easy answers here. The book, intended for “Age 12 and up,” has been lauded by many adults. What is life, at every stage, but a cycle of needing to hold on and having to let go? Between yew and me, I’m holding on tight. To life. This story, my story, and your stories are all part of the healing journey, to live life and to let go when the time comes.

When one’s world is torn open, one’s own truth can lead to wisdom and a heart that can be reconciled, if not consoled. In this book are words and pictures to tell the tale.

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Yew That Saves Me

I’ve written about my favorite birches, oaks, and redwoods, and even a post titled, “Have You Thanked a Tree Today?” Currently, I have another tree to thank and my gratitude reaches a new level, coming from the very marrow of my bones, even as that marrow struggles to make white blood cells. The leaves of Taxus Baccata, the European yew, are the basis of a drug called Taxotere (generic name: docetaxel) that is helping to save my life.

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My Welsh ancestors may well have had such yew trees growing nearby, as they were favored in church yards. The toxic leaves repelled the cows, thus protecting the cemeteries from trampling. Nothing could protect the trees, however, from monarchs’ demands for springy yew wood to make longbows, depleting forests for 300 years until guns became the weapon of choice in the 1700s.  But a few ancient yews, some more than a thousand years old, can still be found in the old church yards.

Now the trees contribute to my longevity as I take my chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Of the four drugs injected into my system every 21 days, Taxotere from European yews (or Taxol from Pacific yews) is most common. It is apparently a reliable and accurate assassin of cancer cells and has helped shrink my tumor to a fraction of its former size. Due to its’ effectiveness in treating various cancers, there is a rise in demand from pharmaceutical companies that could again threaten yew populations. After all, cancer drugs are lucrative business. For instance, the United States saw $3.1 billion dollars in sales of Taxotere in 2010.

I wish the trees, and all those receiving their medicine, well. Yeah, they inhibit all the cells in my body, even the good guys like white blood cells, from dividing and make me nauseous and almost bald. I’m as sick as a cow in a graveyard, but I plan to get rid of disease, recover from the side effects and surgeries, and live cancer-free.

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As I said to my nurse during chemotherapy, “You’re giving me poison in order to save my life.” She said that’s right. Thank you, yews. May we turn your cytotoxic poison into medicine so we can stand strong and live. And may you do the same.