Given the choice, Kami Rivera is one of those people who would much rather give than receive help. But that choice was taken from her last fall when she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
With no history of breast cancer in her family and as someone with a healthy and active lifestyle, the diagnosis was as terrifying as it was surprising for the 38-year-old. She’d married the love of her life, Luis Ruzzo Rivera, three months earlier in an outdoor ceremony where she rode in on horseback wearing a flowing white gown.
The two had only recently returned to their small horse farm at Sunny Hill Stable in Frankfort from a romantic Greek honeymoon they’d put off for a few months.
She and her husband were looking forward to continued renovations of their century-old farmhouse, improvements to the horse pasture and increased focus on her horseback riding and horse boarding business.
Cancer never factored into any of those future plans.
That all changed one evening last October when, while watching television, she noticed a lump on her breast that had not been there when she had conducted a regular breast self exam five days earlier.
Over the next several weeks biopsies, medical scans and additional imaging confirmed advanced breast cancer in both breasts.
Since then, Rivera has had a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction surgery, aggressive chemotherapy and more than two dozen radiation treatments to rid her slight body of cancer. Throughout it all, Rivera has relied on the support of her husband, family and friends not only for the ongoing treatment but to keep things going at Sunny Hill Stables.
“At first people come out of the woodwork to help,” she said. “Whenever people hear the word ‘cancer’ everybody is on board with helping.”
It was overwhelming, she said. Largely because she was not even sure what help she needed or was going to need at first.
“That was a loaded situation,” she said. “People wanted to be here but not everyone had the skills to necessarily be helpful.”
It was a tricky balance, Rivera said. People who only wanted to help would show up but not know exactly what to do. So she found herself taking time to explain things as basic as using a pitchfork to remove horse droppings from the barn. After a time, she started pairing people new to barn chores with experienced workers who could act as mentors.
Her two star mentors on the farm are her mom Sandra Deighan and longtime boarder Molly Straus. The two were the most consistent workers while Rivera was undergoing treatments. Every day one or both were there. They fed horses, groomed horses, cleaned stalls, moved hay bales, picked up manure in the pastures and tackled the myriad of other everyday tasks associated with a horse farm.
“Horse chores are done every day, and you don’t get snow days, or sick days, sleep-in-late days or I-don’t-feel-like-it days,” Rivera said. “The work is not necessarily hard, but it has to be consistent.”
In addition to Deighan and Straus, a core group of friends, other boarders and even a veterinary technician from Kindred Spirits Veterinary hospital are regulars on the farm now, doing whatever needs to be done with little direction given or needed.
“Someone comes out and looks in the pasture and sees poop on the ground,” River said, “They grab a pitchfork without saying anything and take care of it.”
Knowing her helpers were fine on their own was crucial during her five weeks of radiation treatment this summer when Rivera was in Portland all week, coming home only on weekends.
“By that time everyone was trained up enough they were on top of things and didn’t need me anymore,” she said. “It allowed my stress level for the farm to not even exist and concentrate on healing.”
That does not mean mistakes never happen.
“I think a lot of people when they go help others have a fear of making mistakes,” Rivera said. “For me, I always say mistakes are what make us better, so make all of them [because] that is how you learn.”
Plenty of mistakes were made early on by some of the people helping out, but Rivera said one of the things cancer has taught her is not sweating the small stuff. And next to cancer, it’s all pretty much small stuff.
“I had a 12-year-old girl who is one of my boarders here helping, and she dropped a whole wheelbarrow full of manure and looked up at me petrified and crying because she was sure I was going to be so mad,” Rivera said. “All I did was laugh and say, ‘girl, how can I be mad at you when I still do that after all these years?’”
Other times, Rivera said she found herself learning from the people helping out.
“At the start, I am teaching them how to do things and then, they may actually have a better idea of how to do things,” she said. “I look at them and ask, ‘Why did I do it the hard way all these years?’”
Her hair is only now growing back after she lost it all during chemo, and she is coming to terms with no matter how nice her reconstructed breasts look, she will likely never feel any sensation in them again.
“At this point I have six months off and then the final reconstructive surgery,” Rivera said.
Over this past year of treatments, Rivera said her appreciation of her farm and of the people who share her love for it, has only grown.
“The beautiful thing about life is you don’t know where it is going to go or how quickly it will change,” She said. “But I know for a fact I could not have given surviving cancer my all if not for the help I have had here on the farm.”