Lourdes “Lou” Cirignano assumed she needed to wear a more supportive bra for horseback riding in 2013 when she developed a stubborn rash that wouldn’t go away on her left nipple. The spunky brunette from Lake Forest, California, a devoted wife and mother of two adult daughters, tried changing bra styles and even wore two bras at once in order to alleviate it. That didn’t work, and the rash persisted over the span of six months.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month took on a whole new meaning in October 2013 when Lou was diagnosed with Paget’s disease of the breast, a rare cancer which affects the nipple and the darker skin surrounding it. She also had a lump in her left breast, which a biopsy revealed to be cancer. This was not a surprise as Lou’s doctor told her that Paget’s disease is almost always accompanied by one or more lumps within the same breast.
Lou received treatment from the University of California, Irvine Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, and during one visit was asked if she’d be willing to let medical students see her rash symptoms since Paget’s is so rare. “The doctor said, ‘It’s one thing to see Paget’s in a book and another to see it in real life,’ so I said sure. When the three students came in I said, ‘Come on in, kids. Check out my boobs!’ I try to deal with everything through humor even if it’s a little twisted.”
The two male students seemed embarrassed and simply observed while the female student asked several questions. Good humor and a good horse helped Lou stay positive through the trying days of chemotherapy.
Colic And Cancer Surgery
Lou, an avid trail rider, became involved with horses at the age of 36 when her daughter Lauren began riding lessons as a little girl. Lauren is now grown up and runs her own business, Le Cheval Sport Horses, at Peacock Hill Equestrian Center in Orange County.
Lou’s 22-year old National Show Horse, WCF The Big Kahuna, aka Melvin, was and still is her sanity. The friendly bay gelding has been with Lou for 16 years. Lou “inherited” him from Lauren when his show days on the Arabian circuit came to an end due to colic surgery. Once he recovered and could be ridden, Melvin proved to be a solid trail horse. After Lou took care of Melvin through colic surgery and later laminitis, Melvin returned the favor during Lou’s cancer journey.
Because Lou’s cancer was such an aggressive form, the treatment plan to combat it was equally aggressive. After multiple surgeries to both remove her left breast and fully reconstruct it, she faced three 12-week rounds of chemotherapy. The first and third series of treatments were spaced three weeks apart with the second round of treatments occurring weekly. The whole time, Lou continued to ride despite her doctor’s warnings.
“They didn’t want me to fall off and dislodge the chemo port and they were worried about the germs around the barn,” she said. Lou found an unlikely ally in another barn parent who happened to be the head of oncology for UC-Irvine. He encouraged Lou to continue to pursue activities that made her happy and pointed out that none of the bacteria at the barn would be new to her system, as she’d been around horses for years. “Right before I went into one of my surgeries, I looked up and the head of oncology was right there at my side! He gave me a horse stuffed animal.”
Following surgeries, the chemotherapy started. “The first time I saw Melvin after my chemo, he acted weird. He didn’t want to come over to me, like he wasn’t sure it was really me,” she said. Lou surmised that Melvin could smell the cancer-combating drugs in her body. He eventually warmed up to Lou and for those several months, the gelding was on his best behavior.
“He didn’t do anything wrong the whole time — it was like he knew,” Lou recounted. Melvin never brushed against her with his face, took a bad step or glanced sideways when she rode him.
After her first treatment, Lou thought it would be an easy ride — but quickly learned otherwise. “There were some days I barely had the energy to walk from my car to his stall,” she said. One of the lessons Lou learned from cancer was to ask for help when she needed it. And so, her family and friends pitched in to help lift bags of shavings and grain that Lou would’ve otherwise attended to herself. And she continued going to the barn.
Lauren recalled, “She was so open about her cancer.” She believes her mom’s willingness to talk about what she was going through, along with having to care for Melvin, were coping strategies. “If she didn’t want to talk about it, she’d tell you … She only missed a few days of work.” Lou’s day job is in the field of sponsorship marketing and she does the accounting for her daughter’s horse business, too.
An Adventure Of Epic Proportions
Prior to cancer, Lou had traveled around the world on horseback riding vacations in Ireland, Spain, Italy, France, Alaska and Hawaii. Always a physically active person, Lou didn’t feel like her pre-cancer self after the surgeries — despite consistently riding Melvin.
Danielle, Lou’s older daughter, told her about an organization in Colorado called Epic Adventures that hosts a free week-long activity camp for cancer thrivers (as they refer to people who’ve received a diagnosis). Lou submitted an application in which she had to write about her cancer story. She was thrilled to be selected and later attended a winter camp where she got to snowshoe, ride a dogsled, cross country ski and play in the snow with new friends who shared a similar life journey.
“I want to go back as a volunteer,” Lou said, adding that she had a beautiful time in the great outdoors even though there was an incident with one of the dogsleds. She and another thriver were riding with a driver when they fell off the dogsled. They were unharmed, although Lou insists the driver of the sled had to have been mortified knowing he inadvertently dumped two women with cancer diagnoses on the ground.
As of today, Lou is healthy and happy, with a renewed sense of energy. At the end of her work day, she heads to the barn for a ride on Melvin. The two hit the dusty foothill trails of the Santa Ana Mountains and continue to nurture their thriving friendship. “I nursed him through colic and laminitis and he nursed me through surgery and chemo,” she said.
About the writer: Susan Friedland-Smith, a middle school history teacher who has been horse-crazy since girlhood, lives in North Tustin, California. Her OTTB Tiz A Knight is the main character of the blog Saddle Seeks Horse (SaddleSeeksHorse.com), which chronicles her amateur adventures and “the real horse life of Orange County.” Find her on Twitter @SaddlSeeksHorse and Instagram and Facebook @SaddleSeeksHorse.