By Pam Maley and Jackie McFarland
A test of courage is not often a challenge we seek in life. But when faced with a life-changing adversity, suddenly that difficult test is smack in front of our face, without much chance for preparation. Two heroic California horsewomen, Gail Morey and Kristin Crosland, have not only shown courage on horseback, but have also shown their valor through the dark and difficult days of cancer diagnosis and treatment, to carry on with their lives. Horses, so much a part of their lives, provided spiritual incentive and a warm, comforting presence along the way.
Gail Morey’s Battle With Breast Cancer
Gail began her life with horses at age 7 at the historic Red Barn in Stanford, California. She and her twin sister, Sara, spent every day they could at the barn, and those long childhood days blossomed into a lifelong love of horses.
After college and a two-year stint in Washington, D.C., working on the Hill, Gail moved back to the Bay Area and returned to the show ring. Along with her passion for horses, she’s devoted to her family. Married for 27 years, Gail and her husband, Matt, have two grown children: a daughter named Sutton, 24, and a son named J.B., 22.
Gail was diagnosed with breast cancer in fall 2002 after a routine mammogram. “My mother had died of breast cancer at age 63, so I never missed my annual mammogram,” she said. “In 2002, my mammogram showed calcifications — tumor dust — but because of my family history, more tests were done and the cancer was detected. I strongly believe that early detection saved my life and made my journey much easier.” Gail had a lumpectomy, and because no lymph nodes were involved, she was fortunate not to have to undergo chemotherapy; instead, she was treated with radiation five days a week for six weeks.
As a mother herself, the diagnosis made a significant impact on Gail. “When I was told that I had breast cancer, my life changed,” she said. “My first response was real fear for my children, who were only 10 and 12 at the time. My daughter was going through puberty and I didn’t want to make a tricky time in her life even more confusing. There were definitely days when I thought I would die without seeing them grow up.”
During her diagnosis and radiation treatment, Gail said her barn friends “made my journey easier and were incredibly supportive and understanding.” Her horse then was her show hunter Saturday Matinee. For six weeks in fall 2002, she’d go out to ride on weekday mornings, and then go to Stanford for her treatments. Saturday, a naturally gentle guy, seemed to know what was going on. “He did not take a step out of place during that entire time and my rides on him were the highlight that helped me through those six weeks of radiation treatment,” she said. “I was hoping to move him up to the Amateur Owners the following year, so he gave me something to look forward to, in addition to an endless amount of love and kindness. He’s now 20 and living a wonderful retirement at Wild Turkey Farm in Oregon.”
New Reality, New Horse
In 2005, Gail bought the Holsteiner stallion Crown Affair. Facing new realities, she took a leap that she may never have done pre-diagnosis. “I’m more prone to say yes because I might not get another chance,” she said. “Buying Crown Affair is a perfect example. Three years after my cancer diagnosis, I unexpectedly had the opportunity to buy him. My checkbook said, ‘No!’ The rational side of my brain said, ‘No.’ But the side of me that no longer takes any day for granted said, ‘Yes!’
“He allowed me to play on the national stage, and because of him, I was able to compete at some big shows back East.” With several years of success in the hunter ring, the USHJA Hunter Derby program was taking off and her horse had a knack for it. “Crown Affair excelled in the derbies with John French in the tack, and those years were some of the best years of my life,” she added.
Courage Called For
Fast-forward to 2011, when her checkups and mammograms had been good for almost a decade. Deciding to test Gail for the BRCA gene (think Angelina Jolie), her doctor found that she was in fact carrying the gene, meaning her chances of a breast cancer recurrence were 85 percent or greater, and her chances of contracting ovarian cancer were off the charts as well. Feeling that she had no choice, she had an intense fall season with a double mastectomy in September, removal of her ovaries in October, and breast reconstructive surgery in November.
“The following fall I did the Avon Breast Cancer walk in Santa Barbara,” she said. It was the hardest thing physically that I’ve ever done — but it was also one of the most powerfully emotional experiences that I’ve ever been a part of.”
Now, at age 54, Gail is riding, though not doing much showing. “But I’ll take that barn smell, a quiet nicker and a connection with a horse any day!” she said.
Her bout with cancer, she said, “was an extremely powerful time in my life. Dealing with your own mortality makes you take a hard, sometimes difficult look at your life and what you have or have not done with it. Horses have been an important and fulfilling part of my life. I’ve always found solace in my horses’ stalls. They’ve offered me comfort and companionship and have taught me many lessons along the way. My cancer diagnosis taught me to live today because it truly is a gift.”
Gail’s Words of Wisdom
“I’m living proof that early detection saves lives. Every woman should have an annual physical with a pap and a mammogram. It’s time well spent. No one wants to look back as they’re about to start chemo and wish they’d actually made that doctor’s appointment.
“Seriously, just schedule the appointment every year.”
Kristin Crosland’s Battle with Breast Cancer
Kristin Crosland was introduced to riding by her mother, Sandy. “My mom had grown up on the East Coast with a fairly broad exposure to equestrian sports,” Kristin said. “She had to work hard for our riding opportunities because most of my childhood was in Utah, and non-western riding was extremely limited.” Kristin first sat a horse at age 6. “It stuck!” she added happily.
“To this day I have the fondest memories of braiding horses before dawn, loading five ponies in a four-horse trailer and hitting the road to a horse show with my mom, sister, a friend or two, and a box of jelly-filled powdered donuts. I can still feel the cool morning air, smell the hay we loaded into nets for the trailer and taste the donuts.”
After a post-college move to Northern California in 2002, she showed horses for the Billig family, establishing a close and enduring friendship. Kristin has worked at their med-tech consulting firm for eight years, and is deeply appreciative of their ongoing support.
Kristin and her partner, Matt, were recently married, and to her delight, her 10-year-old stepdaughter, Ashlyn, has started riding. Her 7-year-old stepson, Lincoln, is into baseball right now, so “many weekends he and Matt head to the batting cages while Ashlyn and I head to the barn, Kristin said. “We then all meet up afterwards for Mexican food followed by frozen yogurt with far too many toppings. Those are some of my most favorite times.”
Her cancer diagnosis came on Valentine’s Day 2013, when she was 40. “I learned I had Stage 4 breast cancer (meaning it has spread away from the original tumor site either locally in the surrounding tissues or to other organs) and that it was an aggressive one,” she said. “I was initially told that most women in my situation lived two to five years, but that some patients exceeded that. It was a dark time.
“A very beloved friend helped me and my family pull ourselves off the floor to pursue more aggressive (and hopeful) treatment options. She forever changed the course of my life. My doctor told me at the start how hard it would be and I didn’t want to believe him. Unfortunately, he didn’t exaggerate, but the results have proven worth the toll paid.”
Her prognosis has improved, though it’s still uncertain. Recent scans have shown no evidence of disease. “There’s no such thing as a cure for Stage 4 patients, but my doctor likes to say we have ‘curable intent.’ I like his semantic optimism,” Kristin said.
Treatment and Time in the Saddle
“My only treatment option was to go big or go home. I had six and a half months of very heavy chemo followed by surgery, radiation, and then what I call ‘chemo lite’ [targeted biologic therapies]. I still get those,” she said. “I had very serious complications at several points along the way, some of which can never be completely resolved. It all amounted to one year of true hell and a life that I continue to live differently than before. But the major elements of my life are again intact: I work, enjoy time with my family, walk my dogs, see friends, travel a bit, and of course, ride my horse.”
During that difficult year, Kristin didn’t ride at all. She sent her horse to Willow Tree Farm with Lu (herself a cancer survivor) and Guy Thomas, and when she started riding again, it was far earlier than her doctors wanted. “I didn’t know how to find my inner calm and hope without horses,” she explained.
Two friends came to video her first ride, which was supposed to be a light walk. “I couldn’t help myself, though, and after a few minutes I trotted and then even cantered part way around the ring,” she said. When finally she rode to the center of the ring and got off, she was wobbly-kneed and totally spent. “I looked sallow and sickly, but I was beaming.”
Her barnmates and her friend Gail Morey sponsored her in the Avon Walk San Francisco in 2014, raising $85,000 in her honor. “The people at Willow Tree Farm barn have shown me tremendous support and generosity,” Kristin said. “My barn friends have been like fairy godmothers, and have made a profound difference in my life. The Thomas family could not have been more supportive.”
In 2014, she competed at a small show close to home, but after going once around an Adult Amateur Jumper course, she realized she wasn’t ready. When she pulled up, she related, “my vision narrowed, my hearing went into a tunnel and I nearly fainted on the horse before leaving the ring.” It would be another year before she tried again.
Back in the day, she competed in the High Amateur-Owner Jumpers with her horse Jetson. “I know it’s highly unlikely given my health situation, but if I could ever get back to that level of riding, it’d be a profound dream realized all over again,” she said.
Now that she’s no longer receiving the brutal chemotherapy drugs, she can ride several days per week. “It’s a ‘new normal’ though,” she said. “I don’t have the strength or stamina I had prior to cancer and likely I never will. I improve in very small increments all the time, however, and my riding reflects that.
“The camaraderie of my equestrian life has been its greatest gift to me,” she added. “The connection with the horses has been a very close second. Riding has always been my way to find my center, my liberation, and my path to solace.”
Listen to This
“I didn’t benefit from early detection because I have very dense fibrous breasts, so even though my primary tumor was enormous, it never palpated as a telltale lump. I was due for my first mammogram three months after my diagnosis. I found my cancer because of the bone pain due to a site of metastasis.
“My experience has taught me that women with fibrous breasts may need to image earlier than their peers and that they may need additional imaging [e.g., MRI]. It also has taught me that people diagnosed with cancer need to be seen at a cancer center of excellence that’s current to the latest research for their various subset disease type. Breast cancer is actually many different cancers, each with specific disease progressions and treatment options. It’s critical that the oncologist treating you truly understands the cancer type you have and the latest research for treating it.”
Kristin’s Words of Wisdom
“Understand your treatment options fully before you determine how you’ll proceed. Connect with true experts for a second opinion. Let people help you and let them know what you need; horse people are incredibly generous when given the chance.”
“Never, ever, give up.”