The Cancer Whisperer
On the morning I found I didn’t have the energy to walk over to the horses…
Pink Horse (detail) by Julia Breckenreid
Soon after my diagnosis it became increasingly difficult for me to move. I became breathless easily and the tumor on my C3 neck vertebra was excruciatingly painful much of the time. But I knew it was important for me to move my body as much as possible, to take it out into fresh clean air and let nature kiss it. So I went for a walk every day I could, rarely more than 20 minutes out from home and always with my phone in my pocket in case I got into trouble. I wanted to walk alone and feel the pulse of the beauty I live in the midst of—which helped me feel my own.
A few fields away there is a small herd of horses, usually six or seven, belonging to a neighbor. Their field sometimes needs to be cleared of horse dung, but they are otherwise well kept, and I had walked among them many times since we moved to the countryside. Mostly they ignored me unless I approached them, which they permitted in an indifferent kind of way. No doubt eating grass or the hay left out for them was far more interesting than my hand stroking their silky necks. I loved going home with the sweet musty smell of them on my fingers.
Then when I got sick, very sick, something changed. As I entered their field one frosty November morning, I stopped just past the turnstile gate to catch my breath and appreciate their nobility. There were six of them that day, spread out across about an acre of grass, most of them at the other end of the field from where I was standing. The skies were clear blue and I could see two oast houses nestled in a small wood—distinctive circular buildings with conical roofs originally designed for drying hops. We had moved here because this is where my husband was born and his parents are buried. He hadn’t been back for several decades, but it felt right to go home with him when Gabriella was born, and I had fallen in love with its distinctive architecture, sea-lined borders, fruit-laden orchards and gentle landscape. All the same I felt a pang of sadness because we were renting a converted barn and had been planning to buy our forever home before my diagnosis. That seemed entirely impossible now.
That morning I found I didn’t have the energy to walk over to the horses. I stood there yearning to stroke their beautiful faces when something remarkable happened. A chestnut mare and gray gelding lifted their heads from the grass and started walking toward me. Seconds later the others looked up in unison and followed. Some were at least two hundred yards away so it took a matter of minutes for them all to reach me, but eventually I was fully encircled by horses. The largest, a sixteen-hand gray gelding, nuzzled at my chest while a palomino pony rested its muzzle on my shoulder and the youngest, still a foal, tentatively smelled the backs of my hands. I was so surprised and delighted it brought tears to my eyes. I responded by breathing into their noses with my nose to say hello, as they do with each other and as I had seen horse whisperers do. This involved bending down and tilting my head back, which slightly jarred my tumor-obstructed neck, but I didn’t care. Something more important was happening, something unexpected and mysterious and sacred that I didn’t understand. They stayed with me for nearly forty minutes before I became too tired to continue. I was the one who broke contact before walking home slowly with a lump in my throat and something stirring at the base of my soul.
This experience stayed with me into the evening and unsettled me through the night. Had it really happened? Was it just a one-off random occurrence that wouldn’t repeat itself—even though of course I was hoping and praying it would? When I eagerly returned to the field the next morning, I walked through the turnstile gate, stopped about twenty feet in front of it and stood completely still to see what would happen, waiting anxiously. Sure enough, within a few minutes, they lifted their heads from the grass they were chewing and walked purposefully toward me. Another horse circle formed around me. More nuzzles. More neck strokes. More breathing into each other’s noses to say hello. But never breaking the circle or dropping their heads to eat the grass again, as horses normally do. They just stood with me, offering me something I could neither explain nor account for except by the strange healing sensation that began pulsing through my veins.
Adapted from The Cancer Whisperer: Finding Courage, Direction, and the Unlikely Gifts of Cancer by Sophie Sabbage, published this month by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright © 2017 by Sophie Sabbage.