Chemotherapy gets a horse back in competition
|By Melissa Dribben, The Philadelphia Inquirer|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
"I'm sorry," she said. "You don't deserve this."
She fed him some of his favorite treats, wintergreen Life Savers and "stud muffins" -- an equine delicacy made of grains and molasses, then she slumped into a pile of straw in the corner of his stall and cried.
An hour before, she had learned that
She immediately began planning for his death. How could she make his last days as comfortable and happy as possible? How long would she wait before putting him down? And the hardest question of all, how would she tell her 3-year-old daughter, Blair, who had a deep and mutual bond with the 1,200-pound animal?
Four months later, fate has proved much kinder than Withstandley ever could have dreamed.
The horse is one-third of the way through chemotherapy treatment and in remission for the lymphoma that his veterinarians found last winter, almost by accident.
"I love that horse," Withstandley said a few days before she rode him into the ring at one of the world's elite equestrian competitions. "He's done so much for me."
And she for him.
Although lymphoma is a common cancer in thoroughbreds, it is rare for owners to invest in extensive and expensive chemotherapy, said
"Often, the horses have more aggressive forms of the disease," Johnson said. Usually, by the time the cancer is found, tumors have already spread to vital organs. But even in cases in which the horse might respond to treatment, owners are reluctant, either because they cannot afford the
Withstandley, a 34-year-old former
They had just bought a house, she was pregnant with
Bred and born in
"They recognized his athleticism," she said. But the horse was not happy. He seemed anxious with a rider on his back. At one point, Withstandley thought about giving up and retiring him to a farm.
With encouragement from her husband and the horse's trainer, however, she persevered.
"I gave him a month off, and when I started riding him again, cut back to only once or twice a week instead of every day," she said. She bought him a new saddle that fit him better and got him a softer bit.
She gave him a new show name, Stateside, in honor of his American roots.
Gradually, he began to trust her. They entered competitions and began to win.
And while she sometimes feels that she's being carried by a wild beast,
"That's my horse right here!"
The horse, towering over the child, turned his head and tenderly mouthed her shoulder with his lips.
Withstandley has never told
And because the horse has never shown any signs of illness, or suffered any visible effects of chemotherapy other than some thinning of his tail, it has been relatively easy to keep the conversation light.
Back in January, she had noticed some swelling around his throat. At first, the doctors thought it was "strangles," a common bacterial infection. During an ultrasound to examine him more thoroughly,
"It was advancing quickly," Johnson said. But after the initial biopsy, more tests were done that showed that
"They gave me three options," Withstandley recalled. "I could do nothing, treat him with steroids, or give him the chemotherapy."
Her health insurance for
She and her husband were ready to sell off some of their savings, but Withstandley's parents pitched in to help.
In Johnson's seven years at New Bolton,
Frimberger advised Johnson about which chemotherapy drugs to use as well as the sequence and duration. The treatment is roughly the same as the one used to treat humans with the disease, but the doses -- relative to the horse's weight -- are reduced so that the animal does not suffer any side effects.
"We want to preserve quality of life as much as possible," said Johnson. "People are more tolerant because they understand what's going on."
"There's very little research out there or long-term studies," Frimberger wrote by e-mail.
Meanwhile, the Devon Horse Show was timed perfectly -- between chemo treatments.
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