Lois James Doesn’t Let a Looming Illness Rob Her Love of the Sport

Aug 05, 2022

A Tumultuous Off Season: Lois James Doesn’t Let a Looming Illness Rob Her Love of the Sport

Photo courtesy of Lois James.

Anyone who has ever met Lois James would say, “She’s ride or die.” No exaggeration necessary, James is truly the epitome of that expression—cheering on someone she met two minutes ago at an event, clapping when a friend completes a course (despite what their round looked like), and sharing her infectious positivity with her local eventing community and beyond. But “ride or die” took on a whole new meaning when James found herself in diagnosis limbo after a persistent pain in her side brought new fears to light.

“I had this periodic pain in my side for about a month, if not a little bit more, and at that point I kind of realized there’s got to be something going on” said James, who had initially sought answers from an urgent care facility in Washington around this time last year. In standard precautionary but not emergent fashion, James followed up with her family medicine doctor who ordered a full panel of bloodwork. Some answers, and more questions, presented themselves. “In this bloodwork, a couple of pretty alarming things were positive, including the D-dimer.” The D-dimer is a protein fragment that could indicate a blood clotting condition. Upon performing a chest CT, no clots were found but nodules in James’ lungs were there in plain sight on the scan, unexpectedly. The rabbit hole of a medical diagnosis has no clear bottom, and the tunnel to answers can get quite claustrophobic.

Alas, more testing ensued, which led to the evidence of an ovarian cyst that, oddly, didn’t look frightening except for it being paired with more concerning bloodwork that signified positive tumor markers, one of which being an indicator for ovarian cancer. “Because of the location of the nodules in my lungs, because they were so low, it was potentially ovarian cancer that had metastasized to the lungs,” said James. “I had a lung biopsy which unfortunately resulted in a pneumothorax—a collapsed lung—so that was a pretty miserable time.” But her good humor had her laughing at her peculiar situation last fall. “Of course, throughout all of this, I’m still trying to compete!” said James, who was in the midst of completing her first summer season with her 5 year old thoroughbred mare Copper Fox, who she lovingly calls Foxy. If you’re in Area VII, you’ll remember James always with a shiny penny beneath her. Whiskey Business, her former chestnut thoroughbred gelding, was a careful and talented jumper who she sold in the spring of 2020 and then purchased Foxy later that same year—you guessed it, another glossy chestnut.

“My biopsy was scheduled for right after the fall Sport Horse event last year,” said James, laughing in pure amazement of the head on collision that her physical ability and mental competitive nature were having in slow motion. With persistent pain in her side, James learned shortly after a rather inconclusive biopsy that her nodules had transformed into a rapidly growing mass. Which begs the question: why wasn’t this seemingly ugly thing showing a cut and dry diagnosis? After all, there is more riding to be had. “It was fairly conclusive that it was lung cancer of some type,” said James. Her care was then placed in the capable hands of the University of Washington, where trickier cases like James’ were put under a microscope. After a more in-depth biopsy was completed, James received the best news yet: it was definitely note cancer.

“Ultimately, her team narrowed it down to an actual diagnosis: nodular sarcoidosis. It’s a type of chronic lung disease, chronic but not fatal,” said James. “But it does obviously have a factor of stuff going on in your lungs that can, if left untreated, become very problematic. It’s bizarre, it’s extremely weird.” Since January, James has undergone an intensive treatment of steroids to reduce the inflammation, which brought a great deal of comfort to her despite the harsh side effects that can undoubtedly interfere with daily tasks and overall wellness. With a game plan of tapering off the steroids completely, James had noticeable relief in her voice, knowing also that scans will probably be a reality she’ll face for the rest of her lifetime as a precautionary measure.

Now, on the sunnier side of the equation, James admitted, “It was a little bit fortunate in terms of the timing because that first biopsy was right after the last recognized event of the season. I really wanted to do the Young Event Horse class with my mare and she ended up winning it, got a fantastic score, and that was so great—we went out on such a high—and then it plunged into, well, it looks like I’ve got cancer,” said James. “I could barely stand up, barely get from my bed to the couch, so obviously there was absolutely no question of anything equestrian.” But like any event, James had a team of supporters that carried her when she needed it most.

Julie Stephens, who James co-owned Foxy with prior to purchasing her entirely, has been James’ instructor for quite some time. “Not just in the sense of the care that she provides for the horse and for the whole team, but in terms of the support that she’s given me—it’s just so great. She really recognized the pace that I needed to go at when I started to come back to it,” said James as she remembered how hard those initial lessons were after not riding from October to December of 2021. “I’d ride for 10 minutes and then be exhausted,” said James. “With cross-country I thought, ‘Am I going to be able to sustain that level of intensity for a five minute period?’ and thankfully I can.” With another event season around the corner, James started putting in the work, miraculously—somehow—picking up right where she left off at the end of last season. “I was able to come out and do spring at Sport Horse and then I did Equestrians’ Institute and now Rebecca, and I definitely did not think in the fall that that’s what spring would look like, so it’s pretty remarkable.”

What’s also remarkable is Foxy’s ability to adjust her competitive calibration, going prelim with James and answering challenging questions on course, and also being steady and seemingly calm as a cucumber when James’ 13 year old daughter Sarah climbs aboard. This summer, Foxy happily motored around a Daniel Stewart Clinic for Sarah, allowing her the highly sought after chance to improve position, experience the challenge of complex instructions, and consider how both mentality and physicality hold hands while piloting an athletic, talented horse. “I love that mare so much,” said James. It’s quite clear that Foxy has already graduated to become a family heirloom, to be treasured by mom and daughter through every season life throws at them.

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