By Susan Friedland-Smith
Twenty-four year old Alanna McPartlin discovered she had more than just a sunburn while applying lotion across her pink chest where her V-neck shirt had exposed her skin during an outdoor concert. As her left arm grazed her breast, she detected a bump she hadn’t noticed before. It was two and a half centimeters wide.
It was a Sunday night at the end of August 2012 when the equestrian from Corvallis, Oregon, discovered the lump. She panicked and immediately began Googling “breast cancer.” While scouring the Internet search results, what didn’t add up to Alanna was her young age and lack of family history of cancer.
Yet one of the symptoms that matched her situation perfectly was “painless lump.” On Friday of that week, Alanna went to see her doctor. The next Monday, she experienced an ultrasound; Wednesday a biopsy; and by the following Friday received a preliminary cancer diagnosis.
“It was definitely a whirlwind!” Alanna recalled. Her heart dropped when, during her fourth appointment, the doctor said, “We’re here today to find out what kind of cancer you have.” No one on any of the three lead-up medical visits had used those words before.
The day after her cancer diagnosis, Alanna rode her now-retired Thoroughbred eventer at the beach with a friend. She referred to that ride as “equine therapy.”
Facing Fear and Treatments
Alanna stated that the fear of the unknown was the scariest part of her cancer diagnosis, and the hardest part was “not knowing what the treatments would be like or how bad the diagnosis is or isn’t.”
Alanna underwent a mastectomy and for about two months it was undecided if she needed chemotherapy. The good news was the cancer was not in her lymph nodes, and had been detected early. However, the doctors tested the genetics of the tumor to determine the likelihood of the cancer’s recurrence, and based on the results, Alanna began chemotherapy. She received eight treatments spaced out two weeks apart.
A week prior to commencing chemotherapy, Alanna cut her long brown hair, and donated it to Locks of Love. Two weeks after the first chemo treatment, her hair started falling out. She cried when bald patches emerged and then shaved her head. Alanna recalls that once her hair was gone, there was a clear outward sign of having cancer and the reality set in that she wasn’t healthy. She began to wear hats, but then realized she wasn’t really a hat person and became comfortable without them. She continued to ride when she could and found solace through horses.
Support via Family, Friends, Faith and Horse Bloggers
In January 2011, a year and a half prior to her cancer diagnosis, Alanna and her friend Tarra decided to begin blogging together as a fun way to keep track of their riding and training progress. The only horse-crazy person in her family, Alanna is an avid reader and writer; her blog titled Pony Express became a natural extension to merge her love of horses and words.
Alanna blogged about her discovery, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer alongside posts containing riding videos from shows and pictures of her horses. Little did she know at its inception that her horse blog would be a source of encouragement from fellow horse lovers — some she’d never met in person.
In the midst of the fight, Alanna was embraced by a myriad of supporters. “Having community was huge!” she said. “The other equestrian bloggers were super supportive. It was nice to know people were thinking of me and praying for me.”
In addition, family, friends and church family demonstrated their love by accompanying Alanna to doctor appointments, making sure she was eating, celebrating with her and dreaming with her about the future. A quote from the book of Joshua in the Bible buoyed Alanna every step of her cancer battle: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
From Dreaded Diagnosis to Dream Horse
Prior to cancer, Alanna allowed her friend April to breed Alanna’s Thoroughbred mare. That breeding inspired Alanna to ponder, “If I wanted to breed my mare, what would I do?” It was then she came across the Welsh Cob stallion North Forks Cardi and became a fan. “He lives relatively close to where I do, and he was showing at Prix St. Georges. If I were going to go out and buy a horse, I’d want a Welsh Cob by Cardi.” The seed of an idea had been planted, but the timing wasn’t right. Alanna thought she’d wait a few years to buy her next horse — at least that was her initial intention.
During her chemotherapy treatments, Alanna would show Kellie, a loyal friend who sat with her through all but one treatment, Cardi’s pictures from recent shows. “The thought was always there that you can ‘do that later’ but in the midst of chemo treatments, it was very real to me that doing it later may not be an option. Cancer is a tricky thing, and although I should be cured, there is no guarantee. I have an acquaintance who was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, went through treatments and was doing well; seven years later she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. That’s a pretty good reason to say ‘why wait?!’”
Thus, in April 2013, when the chemotherapy treatments were finished and Alanna completed her final surgery that removed the chemo port and placed her breast implant, she contacted North Forks Cardi’s co-owner and visited Cardi’s offspring. She met a yearling filly, a 2-year old filly and a mare pregnant with a Cardi baby. Alanna had her hopes set on a colt (thanks to previously owning a difficult mare) and decided to wait for the mare, Stagecoach Chloe, to foal in June.
It’s a Filly!
Alanna met Chloe’s foal three days after the birth. She was a girl! At that point, Alanna was committed to the youngster regardless of gender. The warm welcome the filly expressed at their initial introduction helped win Alanna over completely.
“When I drove up and got out of the car, she whinnied at me!” Alanna said. “Talk about adorable. She was already super bold and friendly so I had a lot of fun petting her and watching her play.” The spindly-legged filly ran laps in her pasture and would come back to Alanna to receive pets and then shoot off to run more laps. Alanna put money down on her that day and then went to Dairy Queen for an ice cream celebration.
Alanna got to help in the naming process and so her dream filly by North Forks Cardi came to be Winterlake Emerald. “Winterlake” derives from the farm’s name and the letter E was up next in the farm’s alphabetical foal-naming scheme. “I settled on Emerald as a nod to my Irish heritage (the Emerald Isle). I also had found the name Emi and thought that would be a good barn name based off of Emerald. Emi is Japanese and means blessing or beauty, so that seemed fitting.”
A Bright and Horse-Filled Prognosis
This past August marked three years since Alanna’s cancer diagnosis. Currently she sees the oncologist every six months and continues to take a prescription pill daily along with monthly injections. She also undergoes an annual mammogram.
Next year Alanna will start riding her dream filly with the goal of eventing and eventually showing Third Level dressage. Currently the pair goes on long walks in the woods and attends Welsh and open shows where they consistently bring home ribbons.
Alanna shares her story to let others to know “There is life beyond cancer. When you’re in the middle of it, it does become all-consuming and you wonder if life will ever get back to normal. It can be a long road and when you do [get back to normal], you appreciate life so much more because you know people die from cancer. When you know that could have happened to you, you need to live and continue to follow your dreams.”
Author’s Note: Alanna hopes to encourage other women who are facing or will face a similar cancer diagnosis. If you wish to communicate with her, visit her blog’s “Contact Me” page (http://pony3express.blogspot.com/) and reach out — she would love to connect with you.
Photos courtesy of Alanna McPartlin
About the writer: Susan Friedland-Smith, a middle school history teacher who has been horse-crazy since girlhood, lives in North Tustin, California, with her budding equestrian husband, Golden Retriever and Doberman. Knight, the ex-racehorse, has recently joined the family and is the main character of Susan’s blog Saddle Seeks Horse which chronicles her amateur adventures of balancing a green rider hubby and green horse. Follow her blog at susanfriedlandsmith.com for all things OTTB or see what’s up on Twitter and Instagram @susanwordlover.