First and foremost let me apologise prefusively for my lack of blogging antics over the past few months. I have been a very slack wonder pony in that respect! That said, Hannah and I have been extremely busy and have lots to get you up to speed on however may have to miss out most of October, November and December in order to get you up to speed in time! So we will start in January! New Year, new start that’s what they say isn’t it? So we will start in 2016, a new year of new starts aye!? Of course you will be able to find out all about these missing months as part of my exciting book that I am currently writing for you all with my great friend Dingleberry, who is owned by one of Hannah’s best friends Caroline Smail, who also suffered from osteosarcoma when she was younger and she too has experienced just how incredibly strong the power of the love of the horse can be in getting you through the most awful of situations. Almost identical to the way in which Hannah has been able to push through the horrendous days and nights, just to get back to the thing she loves most, her horses. Coming together to share our experiences with you is not only our way of making sure everyone knows just how evil cancer really is but how important it is to dream big, fight hard and never give up on what you truly believe in.
So, back to the start, New Year’s Day. I know the first thing Hannah wrote in her diary that day was ‘well, to be quite honest I really didn’t think I’d make it this far’. After such awful news at the end of October I know that we all had had a real bashing to our hope levels of her getting better but her family are amazing and remained totally bulletproof throughout taking each day as it came and most importantly making every day count no matter what. The only thing that was important was making sure that Hannah had a smile on her face at least once every 24 hours.
We had had the most incredible evening with friends and family the night before at the Orchardleigh’s New Year’s Eve Ball which was raising money for myself and Dorothy House. It was a fantastic event, great food, great music, great people and a great firework display (see my facebook post!). We danced the night away (on crutches may I add) and I threw some pretty snazzy shapes even if I do say so myself. I was quite impressed with Dad’s dance moves too, let alone Grandpa’s! Loving the knee bob up and down! Hannah didn’t stop smiling once and I was so pleased to see a bit of glee on her face again.
Hopefully starting the new type of chemotherapy to try and hold the tumour was the right thing to do as it gave her more time at home and the time we did have left together could be really special and worthwhile. Not stuck in between four white walls any more than we had to. The next day I expected Hannah to be exhausted after we actually made it until 1am – far further than the intended 10pm target we had set ourselves! We started the new year with breakfast kindly hosted by Granny and it was a serious feast! Not only was there cereal and toast but scrambled egg, smoked salmon, fry up, cheese, ham, bread, porridge – the full works! The whole of the Francis family were in occupancy and it was lovely to see them all again for the first time since our wonderful boxing day together. (I’m afraid Hannah’s mammoth Christmas is top secret until my book is released!). Everyone had planned a pony club hack to go from ours afterwards at 12pm and much to Hannah’s shock Dad decided he would like to come along too and become the ‘hunt master’ in his bright red overalls on Chesney! Very funny to watch very tall 40-odd year old man wobble along in a full bright red outfit on a very orange horse! They all had a lovely hack together and it was so nice for Hannah to catch up with everybody, she was looking forward to their meal later on at the Bell Inn which had a great turnout of about 25 in the end. Unfortunately Hannah felt massively poorly by pudding though and had to leave early. I was devastated that cancer had to get in the way of her having a wonderful day yet again. It’s so not fair is it… Anyway she was soon home in the comfort of her bed, totally exhausted and ready for some serious catch up sleep to make day two of 2016 seem a lot better. Or so she hoped. Unfortunately not.
We had a couple of really bad days then for a while. I think Hannah had just done too much in the space of far too little time and totally overdone what her “new” body can now sadly cope with. It’s so hard though when she is so very desperate to make every single day so worthwhile now and make each one count. She has to fill her days with all that she can in case she doesn’t get the chance to do it again. It’s scary for her living life in a panic. Not knowing how many more days you have, I feel scared and I’m not the one with the vicious disease eating away at me inside, poisoning me and making me unbelievably sick. I’m not the one being made to feel like there is this ticking time bomb waiting to go off inside you and say “your time is up” when really it isn’t. Hannah deserves so much more in life. She had and still has huge aspirations to ride for her country and the top of the sport no matter what it takes and I still see that drive and determination in her. Even on the bad days. I think that’s what makes it harder. She never ever gives up and I know she will continue to fight no matter what. That’s what makes her special. She is my special friend who I will always love and cherish. So the pain is not only worse but the new chemotherapy is causing a huge amount of swelling in her lower legs that is not only unsightly but very painful and worst of all (in Hannah land) means she can no longer fit her riding boots on which means no riding… And riding is literally the only guaranteed thing to put a huge grin on her face that makes her feel alive and normal again. Something she can do without suffering, at least for now anyway. It brings me all the happiness in the world when I see her on board a horse because that smile is so beautiful and strong it’s infectious. No one can deny that. I’ve seen enough of you say that about her too and we all know its true.
It was very kind of Tom Grant to come up and ride Mavis and Chesney for Hannah when she wasn’t strong enough this month and I know that Hannah loves to catch up with him too. It’s magical to see her face light up at the slightest mention of a horse and Tom is one of her favourite people to talk about them with. They just get what each other are on about. I know she was chuffed to bits when he mentioned just how much he likes both her horses – it means so much when someone of that calibre praises you on something you’ve produced. Tom finally received the berry he deserved for giving Mavis such a special and successful season last year. Funnily enough he named her ‘Mavisberry’ and she is to be the Mum of the family, Mumma Berry! I think he was really chuffed to have been given one by Hannah and I know it means a lot to her too.
It’s hard for Hannah right now to be facing such a tough decision as for what to do about her horses. Her main goal is for them to be happy, doing the things they love and deserve to be doing. She knows deep down she isn’t capable of riding two horses a day. She loves the way in which Tommy is with Millie and how Millie totally adores the greatest pony in her life. They couldn’t be more suited for one another if they tried. They have an extremely exciting year ahead of them with lots of goals and I know Hannah is raring to help them achieve them in any way that she can. She will always love them both dearly. However she is concerned that when riding Mavis that Chesney misses out and when riding Chesney vice versa. Perhaps the time has come for one to move on and only one to stay so that she is able to ride every day so long as she is well enough rather than try and ride both but then suffer for days after and neither get ridden. As I’m sure you are aware Hannah loves both these horses with all her heart and would rather not have to give up either of them.
Chemotherapy was due again on the 5th and to distract herself from the torture to come she jam packed the Monday before with riding Chesney on the flat, teaching two riders, heading to Wadswick Country Store and her first afternoon tea. Phew! Somehow I don’t think it was her greatest plan as that evening was not our greatest pain wise or feeling wise. Oh well, you live and learn. Well actually I don’t think Hannah ever does!
Chemotherapy day was pretty average. Fortunately we printed that wonderful smile on Hannah’s face with an early morning ride on Mavis beforehand which was great to see. This always makes us extremely late however to get to chemo and they (the hospital) always wonder where we are but they know Hannah well enough by now that it is always a horse that causes the hold up! Lvi kindly came to visit Hannah and Dad at midday and didn’t end up leaving till 3. That girl can talk for England! We love her though very much and Willberry Wonder Pony wouldn’t be where he is today without all that she has done, so thank you. I know Hannah’s day on the 5th would have been far more miserable had you not been there to save it with your hilarious antics. After she left Hannah started to suffer from chronic stomach pain which was totally miserable for her to have to deal with. Normally this comes and goes and has been a feature of this new chemotherapy that has just been a horrible side effect we have had to deal with. But this continued all the way home and into the night. She couldn’t sit, she couldn’t sleep and nothing would stop the pain. I hate seeing her suffer when there is nothing I can do. I hate to think how much it eats up her Mum and Dad inside to see her like that as well as no parent deserves to see their child suffer like this, ever.
Despite an awful night Hannah was determined to achieve her exciting day… a trip to the wonderful Kitty Kings! She was so excited and many painkillers later was on her way bright and early to meet the talented event rider. Kitty’s mum greeted Mum, Hannah and I while we waited for Kitty’s first lesson with her world class trainer to come to a close and she was really lovely. It was then super cool to watch her second lesson on a horse called Sprout who was absolutely beautiful in more ways than one. He thought he was an absolute film star I’m sure – you could tell by the way he stood so tall and proud when he looked at you – not only was he stunning to look at but he moved incredibly well too. Hannah loved watching him being worked by Kitty who rides with such passion and determination. It absolutely made her day though when Kitty asked Hannah if she would like to cool Sprout off once the lesson was over (Kitty is as independent and dream-driven as Hannah and to let someone else ride your horse is quite an honour so Hannah was really touched that she was able to). Although we had a bit of a struggle mounting such a tall horse, once on Hannah was totally at home and I wasn’t sure how we were going to get her off! And that was for two reasons; because she loved him and it was a long way down to the floor! It was lovely for Hannah to get to go for a little hack with Kitty after so she could ask her questions and they could talk about all things horses. Visiting her yard had been on the agenda for quite some time after they had met at the fabulous Eventers Ball, again at the Willberry Christmas Party Kitty had so kindly come to and also at Olympia! Finally it happened and we were not disappointed in the slightest.
A tour of the yard and a quick lunch then we had to dash home for the farrier - not before Hannah had to hand over one of her special friends to say thank you, another berry to add to the family who was aptly named ‘Kingberry’ and we hope that he will bring Kitty plenty of luck this season as her new lorry mascot. Before this Hannah could not believe her luck though when Kitty handed over her gorgeous white cross country t-shirt she had worn at Blair Castle last year! How special is that! I know Hannah will treasure it forever and ever and is so unbelievably grateful. Thank you Kitty for such a special morning.
Despite feeling really tired the next few days were smiley ones. Hannah had a fantastic lesson with Brigid the following day on Mavis and was able to run through two 1* tests for the very first time. Very exciting as Hannah’s dream is to ride in top hat and tails someday soon and we are all hoping that this will be her chance to… perhaps as a guinea pig rider at a big international event one day? Who knows! But it is very exciting! Finally Brigid received her special berry friend too as Hannah had been meaning to give her one for ages and ages. She is determined to make sure that all the people who have truly made a difference or are very special in her life receives one in memory of her and me – of course! This berry was to be incredibly special though as Brigid chose to name her Hannahberry after the James Bond character Halleyberry. I know Hannah was extremely touched by this so thank you Brigid.
The smiles from that morning were slightly dampened by an afternoon in the four white walls receiving a top up of blood and platelets which takes a good number of hours. Although it is supposed to make you feel better it never really seems to make Hannah feel better at all, if anything it makes her feel worse! Cold one minute, hot the next and achey or bruised all over. Oh well just the way it is I suppose. Friday morning Hannah could hardly motivate herself to leave her bed let alone the house and I know just how much this frustrates her as she truly hates to lack in determination. She has never been like this and never wants to be. Fortunately she managed to unroll herself from the duvet by 10 and made it outside to go to hill house for a very special jump lesson. Not only was the wonderful Jayne Smart going to teach her but the totally stunning devoucoux saddle company were bringing some saddles for Hannah to try on her special mare. How exciting. Let’s just say it was a very successful morning and Hannah cannot wait till February… Eeek!
Sunday 10th January saw Christmas Day take two after Hannah had been so poorly on the actual one. It was a fantastic day and Grandma did an incredible job with the food (so yummy). Beforehand Hannah had to have a blood test and platelet transfusion in hospital which was dull but fortunately the Bath team were on super speedy form and we managed to have left the hospital by 12.30 to get to Grandma’s – plus Hannah drove all the way!
Monday was a huge day for Hannah. We were finally going to go cross country schooling. It would be another massive tick off of Hannah’s bucket list. We arrived at Pontispool in the freezing cold and I know just how much the cold goes straight through Hannah since she has had chemotherapy. It was hard for her to get going before she was on the horse but once she got on she was away and my golly gosh did she fly that day! Mavis was an angel and did everything and more asked of her. The grin on Hannah’s face was just magical, you couldn’t fault it one bit. There wasn’t a jump left un-jumped by the time that girl left the arena. Poor mum and dad (and me) had an absolute heart attack about some of the things she was cantering towards, but it obviously made her feel alive, normal, strong and ‘Hannah’ again and that was all that mattered, that we made her happy. As Hannah wrote in her diary that night ‘even if I can’t walk tomorrow I’ll still be smiling!’.
Even though the next day Hannah felt pretty good and not too stiff, that night a series of serious stomach pains began and she felt awfully sick and miserable. Hannah being Hannah however was so determined to complete another exciting adventure the following day and still left bright and early to Harry Meade’s the following morning. What a lovely, talented, honest, down to earth, fantastic horseman he is. Hannah loved meeting not only him and his fabulous horses, but being given the chance to ride the incredible Away Cruising, who is now Harry’s top horse, was just unbelievable, especially with Harry’s instruction alongside from the ground.
Thank you Harry for giving Hannah such a wonderful day that she will never ever forget and we truly hope that ‘Gooseberry’, as named by your lovely children, will be a seriously lucky charm in the front of your lorry for many seasons to come and that you will always remember us by him.
Sadly that night the pain only continued but far worse than the night before. It hadn’t stopped by the following morning either and mum and dad were seriously worried for Hannah. Hospital here we come.
Blood tests, doctor after doctor, prodding, pain, platelet transfusion, cannula and a CT scan later the outcome is pretty horrendous. Hannah’s bowel lining has formed an air bubble so close to popping she is very unstable and it could burst at any point. No wonder the poor girl has been in so much pain over the past few weeks with all of this building up inside her. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they aren’t letting her go home tonight either, or tomorrow… or the next day at least. The tears Hannah shed that evening was miserable to see. I know just how much the four white walls now scare her. She won’t even lie in the hospital bed anymore even on a day visit let alone at night. She slept in a pull out chair for all the nights running we then had to spend there. It’s not because Bath Children’s ward is a horrible place at all. No, it is totally fantastic and does so many wonderful things for so many children, you cannot fault it one bit and the nurses are just the best. The play team are equally great and ensure that no child is left bored or without activity if you are well enough to do something. And most of all everyone wears a smile. So basically the outcome was not great in the slightest. Hannah, Mum and I spent all weekend in hospital until Tuesday, the first 3 days she was unable to eat or drink anything at all in order to give her bowels a complete rest and reduce the risk of them bursting as much as possible. All of her painkillers were also removed from her diet as these all had a nasty side effect on the lining of her stomach anyway, so the doctors wanted to discontinue them in order to reduce any agitation further to the wall of the bowels and stomach. Hannah has always loved food and always will – this was a really tough task for her to complete, let alone us put up with her anger in the situation as part of the process! She was not impressed in the slightest to say the least! But then neither would I be to be quite honest… have you seen the size of my belly!? Not only was it the hunger that was hard to deal with but most of all the extreme pain she continued to suffer with which only became worse after the painkillers were removed from her system. All she could do was sit down and it took two people to get her to the toilet and back where she found it that physically difficult to move. It was unbearable to see. Fortunately on Sunday the painkillers were able to start again and she could have a small bit of food and drink to start her stomach off slowly. It was so nice to finally get off of the drip as being attached to a machine 24/7 made everything a hundred times harder too. Finally on Tuesday we made our great escape. It was so good to have some fresh outside air in our lungs again and I know Hannah was so relieved to escape from the confinement. When you feel awful and cannot do anything you don’t mind as much being stuck inside, however when Hannah started to feel much better again Monday afternoon it gets very frustrating being cooped up all the time!
So what’s the first thing Hannah would do after 6 days stuck in hospital? Ride a horse of course! And so she did. Mavis was wonderful and fortunately Granny and Tom had been able to keep her ticking over kindly for Hannah whilst she had been wrapped away. The smile was just as good as I’d remembered on her face. I know it was a bit of a struggle to ride in the first place due to the pain but she wrote in her diary ‘it was worth every second’.
We also had a very exciting surprise visit from Oli Smith at Devoucoux that morning. He brought me a very special delivery that had come all the way from France; two extremely beautiful, soft leather, stunning made to measure devoucoux saddles… Just for me! I could not believe my luck! They were incredible. I had my first proper ride on Mavis after Hannah and it fitted me perfectly – perhaps a little on the short side for her, but who cares, it’s not going to do any damage! Thank you so much devoucoux for thinking of little old me, I cannot wait to get on some serious stars in the future if Hannah continues her trend of being able to ride all these top horses the lucky girl! Now all I need is a snazzy hat to match… hehee, any offers?
Sadly, whilst in hospital Hannah made the tough decision that it was time for Chesney to go and further his education elsewhere as she could no longer offer him what he deserved to be happy and progressing in his career. He is a talented, genuine, smart little horse who deserves everything and more and I think Hannah felt a huge weight lift from her shoulders when she decided to ask Tom Grant to take over the ride from her. At least this way she would still have an exciting young horse to follow and watch compete and grow that she could also ride whenever she felt up to it, not to mention the way in which he would be with someone she truly trusted in all of their thoughts, opinions and what they had to offer.
That afternoon we dropped our special ginger friend at his new home. It was heart-breaking to say goodbye but we knew we would be back pretty soon to see him knowing Hannah and how short a time she can stay away from the horses she loves most!
Much to all of our disappointment the next few days just seemed to become worse and worse. The day after we dropped Chesney at Tom’s Hannah was unable to ride due to the pain in her back that was denying her of even standing upright, let alone walking. Both hip muscles had gone into muscle spasm and the tightness was unreal. She had to cancel her lesson with Brigid the following day too which made her even more miserable to say the least.
Somehow by Friday Hannah found some new determination and by 9am in the pouring rain and strong winds she had clambered aboard Mavis and was ready to have a jump. Apparently she “needed to know that she could for tomorrow”. Well, what an earth did she have planned for tomorrow! Anyhow she did it, she jumped and the grin on her face just grew and grew. Hannah was back, at least for a short while anyway. But it made her happy, her confidence in herself returned and she knew she could do it once more. I soon realised what Hannah had planned for the following day though when after she had dried off and warmed up after lunch she was back outside and had dragged poor Mavis from her stable to plait her. She stood precariously on a rickety mounting block beside a mare who was an absolute angel and stood as still as a rock as if she knew she could not move else her beloved owner would have gone flying! Hannah obviously hadn’t lost her touch as the plaits looked ace and Mavis was soon all wrapped up and looking beautiful for her outing tomorrow.
Now to keep everything crossed that nothing would change, no temperatures would form, the pain would not worsen and Hannah would stay well. Phew, not too much to ask was it.
To all of our disbelief we made it. We actually made it to West Wilts Equestrian Centre on Saturday 23rd January for Hannah’s first outing on Mavis in over 8 months for some combined training (that’s both dressage and showjumping – talk about throw yourself in the deep end!). They did a lovely test together and a fantastic clear round showjumping, we really couldn’t ask for any more than that, well only a placing (aren’t we all just a bit competitive!?) and to our shock they came 2nd overall too in the 95cm class! Hannah was absolutely over the moon and could not believe it. She was so grateful to every single person that made it happen for her that day, it was a dream come true to finally be back out on her number one mare doing the thing she really does love most. She didn’t expect to come anywhere at all so to do a nice test and clear showjumping was some pretty good icing but to come 2nd too was the cherry on top!
Unfortunately I think we really did just overdo it on Saturday though as Sunday was one of the worst days I can remember for Hannah. We had a totally sleepless night of pain and she was in floods of tears just lying in bed before she even began to move. It took us over half an hour to get her from the bed to her chair in the kitchen as she could not lift her feet off the floor at all as the pain was too excruciating. It was unbearable to see and I felt totally useless in every single way. I hate to think how her Mum, Dad and brother Sam felt either. No matter how much we seem to push how much pain Hannah is in, the doctors cannot seem to find any painkillers that actually seem to work. She has had so many painkillers overnight and through the morning which did not even make the slightest bit of difference; it really was not fair on her. The pain got to the point where it was so awful that Hannah was violently sick all afternoon and as a result could no longer keep her painkillers down. As if by some miracle however that night she had the best sleep she has had in an extremely long time – how weird! Oh well, who gets our bodies sometimes, especially Hannah’s! There really is no pattern with any of it. Some days Hannah can do loads and expect to feel horrendous the following day and instead feels the best she’s ever felt and other days when you spend the day resting, relaxing and sitting still the next day seems even worse and the pain has only heightened itself. Yes, I’m sure sometimes Hannah does ‘overdo it’ and should ‘rest more’ but when you are living with this ticking time bomb inside of you is it any wonder that you make the most of the really good days? I don’t think so. Therefore when she felt a huge amount better Monday morning we had an exciting day plan ahead with another showjumping lesson on Mavis at hill house with Jayne Smart followed by Tom bringing all of his horses for a jump with her too, along with Chesney of course. Hannah could not wait to see him jump with his new partner properly under the talented and watchful eye of Jayne. All horses were on truly fantastic form and she was so pleased with them.
Although Tuesday was dreaded chemotherapy day, we managed to have some fun beforehand with a really fantastic lesson with Dan Greenwood at West Wilts that morning. Mavis really was on excellent form and Dan was so complimentary of them both which only made Hannah’s smile grow bigger. He definitely saw a huge improvement from the last time he had seen them both before Christmas which was really nice of him to say and gave Hannah a real boost that she is doing the right things not the wrong things as she continues to ride. As per usual it was then a mad dash to hospital afterwards for an afternoon of having the poison pumped in. Let’s just hope it’s continuing to do some good hey! The day 1 drug really seems to affect Hannah and she slept all the way home and went straight to bed. Her symptoms become not only flu like but her pain seems to increase also. It’s really strange, but obviously just how it seems to affect her.
The next three days were like normal post chemotherapy ones - low and miserable.
However Saturday was break through day as Hannah was absolutely OVER THE MOON with Mavis at The Pony Club Winter League Dengie Dressage held at West Wilts Equestrian Centre. It was almost a miracle that we made it there in the first place after the pain she had been in that morning but well dosed up (with far too much determination to compete also) and an angel mare that knew she had to give her the two smoothest tests of her life was a star and qualified for both intermediate and open second rounds by coming 2nd and 3rd in her tests! All Hannah kept on about was how she couldn’t thank her enough for trying so hard for her every single time she rode. You could tell by the look on her face just how grateful she was to own such a special horse like her.
Now as per usual we were totally expecting Hannah to feel even worse today on the last day of January following such excitement yesterday, but oh no, Hannah being her weird self was on flying form and raring to get out again. Yes I know what you’re thinking, how an earth do her poor parents cope with such a demanding and dare-devil child like her… I know I couldn’t. But her spirit and determination is what makes her so loveable, you can’t say no because all you want to do is make her truly happy. That is all you ever want for her. I think it would be this way whether she had cancer or not. Her drive to succeed is just totally and utterly infectious. So off we went this morning showjumping at for a ‘little practice’ for something special that Hannah has lined up over the next few days (which I’m sure by now you are all very much aware of!). As always Hannah and Mavis jumped fantastically well and are all prepped for their next outing, or so we hope, so long as all is well on the day.
So what an up and down rollercoaster month January has been for the entire Francis family! The good days have been pretty special though to say the least but I’m sure you’ll all agree the bad ones were pretty horrific too. I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading my ‘MINI’ January blog as I’ve rambled through some of the best and worst days we’ve experienced.
I look forward to giving you our next update pretty soon, but remember some things have to stay under wraps for my exciting book that I am writing for you all. You can’t have all the juicy gossip just yet!
So PLEASE let’s keep fighting together to #kickcancersbutt and continue to raise money for these all-important charities that mean so much to both Hannah and I. As a reminder, here are the charities we are currently supporting and quite often, as we continue through our journey together, more charities have been added due to the way in which they have become a part of our lives and helped us in some way, just as they have and will help so many others dealing with the same horrific situation and disease:
Cancer Research UK, Little Princess Trust, Teenage Cancer Trust, Bone Cancer Research UK, Josie’s Dragonfly Trust, Steph’s Wishes, Dorothy House, Friends of Bristol (Funding the radiotherapy machine), Bath Children’s Ward and Bath Children’s Cancer Fund.
As if that’s not exciting enough our grand overall total of money raised is now £78,000
Willberry Wonder Pony will very soon be an official registered charity too! Eeeek! We honestly cannot wait and cannot thank all of you enough for all the support and kind words you continue to give Hannah as we really could not do this without you.
Remember, as Hannah always tells me every night before we go to sleep, you need to “dream big, fight hard and never give up”.
Lots of love from Willberry xxx