In October of 2013, I received one of the scariest phone calls of my life. My younger sister Carrie explained that she had gone to her routine eye exam, but had been referred to a specialist. Her doctor had picked up on something strange, what appeared to be a tumor behind her retina, while examining her eye.
Within a few days and after further testing, she received a terrible diagnosis. At the age of 48, she had developed a form of cancer called Ocular Melanoma (OM, or eye cancer).
OM is extremely rare. Only six out of 1,000,000 people are diagnosed each year. Unfortunately, 50% of the time OM can spread anywhere, but usually the liver and lungs.
In the ensuing weeks of multiple scans, fear and uncertainty for Carrie, her three sons, husband and our family, she was treated by Dr. Colleen Cebulla with a radiation patch at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. As fate would have it, Ohio State happens to be one of the leading hospitals for OM treatment, and it was within an hour drive from where she lives.
After spending almost a week in isolation for treatment, she kept up her amazing positive attitude, while joking about her new favorite song “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons, since she was! As part of the treatment plan, only radiation was required, sparing her having to endure chemotherapy.
Luckily, this story has a positive outcome, as the radiation was successful! To date, the tumor has shrunk and is considered a flat scar. She has limited sight in her eye, only having peripheral vision, but her good eye has compensated for the loss of vision and she is able to drive, continue working as a substitute teacher and (the best part) ride my mare Sallie when she comes to visit us in Virginia.
Our family has been truly blessed, as almost four years out, her scans have been negative for metastasis to other organs in her body. Carrie will continue to have an abdominal MRI and chest x-ray every six months for the rest of her life, to check for metastasis. We always have that six-month “whew!!” after her scans.
Which, brings up a really important point. As “horse people” we spend immense amounts of time in an outdoor environment, exposed to the sun. Having gone through this experience with my sister, it taught me the major importance of having that yearly eye exam, with dilation. Because of her once-a- year routine, the doctors were able to catch the cancer in the earlier stage. When was the last time you had your eyes examined?
After going through the emotional roller coaster with my sister’s diagnosis, the uncertainty of dealing with such an unpredictable form of cancer, it really put the important things of life into perspective for me.
The reality is, there is no cure for OM, and many who are diagnosed develop cancer in other parts of their body. For many, the prognosis is not what my sister has experienced. But, promising trials are happening from research funded through the Ocular Melanoma Foundation (OMF), which may eventually lead to new treatments for a cure.
After doing some OMF fundraising at my place of work last year, it got me thinking about a way in which I could combine my favorite activity, eventing, and raising money for research and to bring awareness about this terrible disease.
As my mare Sallie is getting up in the years, I had originally planned for this to be THE year. With AECs moving back out west next year, I considered that this may be our last chance to qualify on the East Coast. I then thought about all the amazing rides my sweet girl has offered me through the years. How she has brought me from the “hunter world” to actually completing my first horse trial at the age of 50. As a team, we have won multiple championships, reserve championships and year-end placings.
What she has offered me as an equine partner has gone way beyond anything I would have ever imagined. I realize that while the ribbons are fun for the moment, they are fleeting. Why not make this show year really count … riding for an amazing cause?
This year I have decided to ride, not for me, but for my sister and others with OM, as most people with this cancer are fighting for their life. This year when I enter the show ring, my saddle pads will be embroidered with the OMF logo and my jumping phase shirt will proudly display “Eye Ride4life.”
Go get that yearly eye exam and GO EVENTING!
Judy Lancaster competes her mare Sallie (aka #missdisrespectful) at Beginner Novice level. To contribute in honor of her sister Carrie Butner, visit her CROWDRISE page here. 100% of money contributed to “EYE RIDE4LIFE” will go directly to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation Campaign.