Riding the storm: Chemo ‘like having petrol pumped into you’

It was the tiredness that Ben Hobday first noticed.

The three-day eventer was used to working from six in the morning often into the dead of night tending to his stable of horses, but gradually the realization set in that he was not his usual bundle of energy.

The initial prognosis was mumps or glandular fever but the tests came back negative for both so he sought a second opinion.

June 29, 2015 is a date indelibly etched on his memory, the day doctors sat him down to tell him he had Burkitt’s Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, an aggressive type of cancer that breaks out in the lymph glands.

The Briton was no stranger to the “C” word — his mother Lisa having previously been diagnosed with breast cancer — but to be staring death in the face himself at the age of 27 was a gargantuan body blow.

“It’s a choice,” when fighting the disease, the budding equestrian explains, and, as well as relentless chemotherapy, Hobday has bombarded it with his trademark positivity.

“The reality is every day I’m looking death in the eye riding a horse,” he explains. “The way I tell myself is that people have this every single day and I’m no different to them so you pick yourself up and get on with it.”

The past five months have been punctuated by dates. While the end of June marked the ultimate low, September 30 marked the end of the treatment, the relief at 15 days of intravenous drugs pumped into his body consecutively ending.

“It feels like 15 days of having petrol pumped into you,” is his take on the treatment. “It is the only way I can describe it.”

It was not the petrol-like quality of the drugs coursing through his veins that was the hardest thing to take, nor his inability to keep any food down nor losing his voluminous hair.

Instead, it was the nothingness: “The hardest part was going from buzzing with energy looking after 10 to 15 horses to being able to do nothing. I got tired so quickly, I still get tired so quickly.

“I was suddenly like a very fragile old person you might see, and with it you realize how fragile life is.”

But the one major carrot dangled in front of him throughout his painstaking treatment apart from being rid of his sickness has been to get back in the saddle.

From the age of four, the horse world is all he has known and what has driven him every day.

A former British national under-21 champion, Hobday also boasts team gold and individual bronze from the 2008 young rider European Championships.

In addition, he has achieved clear rounds at some of the most prestigious venues in the world, notably at the UK’s Badminton and Burghley Horse Trials.

Hobday is an inspiration to talk to, his positivity wavering just once in half an hour of conversation as briefly the emotional roller coaster of the past five months momentarily takes his toll.

He says the recovery has been helped by those around him including his parents, Lisa and Steve, and girlfriend Emma as well as the wider equine world.

Even now he is surprised that “people seem to give a s***,” and he has been sure to keep his 14,000 Twitter followers up to date with his progress virtually from the start.

The day after being diagnosed, he posted an extended message on Twitter: “I am sorry I’ve been quiet recently. But the last few weeks have been very difficult, I have been in hospital for lots of test and I’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

“My head is all over the show at the moment but all your support really helps, thank you. I will never give up and I will beat this. Ben.”

He has kept people regularly updated with his repeated catchphrase turned hashtag #yehboi.

“Some people might disagree with my approach but I decided to make everything very public,” he explains. “My life has always been out there — it has to be in this sport as you’re always selling yourself if you like.

“If I’d not explained what I was going through I would have felt like I was robbing people. And you wouldn’t believe how it helped. In that first week, I was sleeping about 20 minutes a night but I must have had something like 2,000 messages. That’s very powerful.”

Among those to have messaged him have been the entrepreneur Richard Branson, who posted a get well video message to him.

In return, Hobday has treated his supporters to some horse-inspired singing as well as a Britney Spears impression complete with blonde wig among his social media highlights.

His other goal on his road to recovery was to set simple targets from getting up to going to the toilet first thing in the morning, or to being able to walk down the corridor of the ward he was on at the Royal Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, in the northeast of England.

His girlfriend would be by his side until midnight each night. His parents were also regular visitors on the ward.

Criquette Head-Maarek, the French trainer of wonder horse Treve, claimed that being around horses helped cure her own cancer, and Hobday understands such comments.

Last month, he defied doctors’ orders to get back in the saddle and jump again.

“The docs said I shouldn’t be riding but it was a calculated risk. I felt a bit fragile doing it and I wanted to do it, needed to do it to help overcome the demons in my head.

“If something happened, of course people would have said I was stupid but the doctors and nurses know what I’m like, that I have to push myself.”

Slowly but surely, he plans to get fitter and to ride more, and competing against his peers once again.

It is perhaps befitting that his business name is Shadow Sports — Hobday himself feeling as if he is finally coming out of the shadows.

On Wednesday November 18, he was told the cancer had gone. His immediate reaction was captured in a brief tweet: “REMISSION!!! Cancer NO more!!!” It is another date that will stick with him forever.

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