Not long after spots appeared around his eyes, Scout, a discarded quarter horse, was fighting for his life and breaking the heart of the woman who brought him into her family.
Scout died in January after two years of chemotherapy and four surgeries, a struggle that inspired Rebecca Mead’s quest to raise awareness of equine cancer and money for more research.
“When I started looking around on the Internet, there was hardly anything about equine cancer,” said Mead, a Mansfield resident. “I said, ‘I’m going to do something about it.’”
In August 2012, she founded the Equine Cancer Society, a nonprofit organization made up of horse owners, rescuers, veterinarians and fundraisers scattered across the country.
Horses need an advocate, Mead said, especially rejected ones. They are rarely kept as pets because, in addition to normal boarding expenses of thousands of dollars a year, horses that have been mistreated by people can be dangerous.
“A lot of time, their manners — they will not be the nicest horses,” Mead said. “It’s just because they’re not used to being loved. They were just a tool. If something was wrong with them, they just would be set out to pasture or whatever.”
‘It certainly is out there’
Dr. Brian Burks, a Pittsburgh-area equine veterinarian and member of Mead’s board of directors, said cancer in horses is relatively rare, and the scant number of reported cases can make it difficult for medical research to develop reliable data.
“It’s not as common, but it certainly is out there, and I don’t think people are aware of it as they should be,” said Burks, director of the Fox Run Equine Center near Pittsburgh. “There is a relative dearth of information out there.”
Horses are most susceptible to three skin cancers: sarcoids, melanoma and squamous-cell carcinoma, the latter often forming around the eyes.
Treatment includes surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and topical ointments, and results depend on the type of cancer and how early it is detected, experts say.
Burks said some people choose not to use radiation because of its cost.
But research is going on, some with encouraging early results, Burks said. He’s guardedly optimistic about trials using a melanoma vaccine in horses that was originally developed for dogs. The Morris Animal Foundation is funding the study, with contributions from Mead’s organization.
“At least in dogs it has shown some promise,” he said, adding that it hasn’t been tried in as many horses. “I don’t think they have been as successful.”
However, a new compound, cisplatin, has had success rates above 80 percent and 90 percent in treating those cancers when the tumors were small and detected early, according to recent studies of the National Institutes of Health.
Mead said that drug did not work for Scout, but people need to know their options, she said, which is why education was a key motivation for founding the Equine Cancer Society.
“I decided that something needs to make the veterinarian community and horse owners wake up a little bit, and let them know this is out there for horses,” she said.
Taking care of Scout
Mead keeps her five remaining horses at a stable at the end of a dirt road in Kennedale. Her current favorite is Captain Pleasure, or “CP,” a gray horse who, because of his color and pigmentation, is likely to develop melanoma sometime in his life, she and Burks said.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know why,” Burks said.
On a recent Friday, after a drenching rain muddied the stables, Mead and her children — Emily, 17, a senior at Legacy High School, and Dalton, 15, a Legacy freshman — visited Captain Pleasure, a former race horse that was tossed away after his unheralded career ended.
They also reflected on Scout’s battle.
Scout was a paint horse nicknamed “Cow” because of his pink nose and black and white color. He had been beaten and was underweight, and it was six months before Mead could ride him.
“The owners got rid of him,” said Mead, who bought him in July 2009.
When the first spots showed up around his eye, she couldn’t find much research online.
“The first veterinarian that I was using didn’t really understand the injections for the chemo,” Mead said. “So when he did it, it actually caused an infection.”
Once cancer was diagnosed, Scout underwent several surgeries —one of which took his eye — and rounds of chemotherapy.
“We had to take care of him every day,” Emily said. “His face had to be wrapped every day.”
Campaign is growing
Among those touched by Mead’s outreach was Jacque Bentley of Woodstock, Ga. Her horse, Blue, was diagnosed with squamous-cell cancer in 2011, leaving Bentley desperate. She didn’t know anyone who had a horse that had cancer.
“I started to do research online, and that’s where I came across Rebecca,” said Bentley, who owns a photography business. “She immediately contacted me back. It was a wonderful thing to know that she was there and that there was somebody out there that understood what we were going through.”
Bentley said Blue’s first symptom was drainage from his eye, which was not alarming. The first veterinarian that came to the stable diagnosed the problem as an infection, which quickly cleared up with medication.
“But it came back with a vengeance,” she said.
The first surgery removed a tumor from his eyelid and appeared successful. But another tumor formed, as well as a growth on his forehead. The cancer had metastasized to his lymph nodes, and Blue died in June.
Like Mead, Bentley said she was frustrated by the lack of information available on equine cancer. Befriending Mead — whom she has never met in person — “made a huge difference in how I was able to handle what was going on.”
Mead believes her campaign is making headway.
“When I started this, I didn’t know it would grow as quick as it did,” she said. “I have literally hundreds of e-mails a month from people who have horses that had cancer, and different kinds of cancer.”
Not to mention the traffic on her year-old Facebook page, which has almost 11,000 likes.
“People are starting to pay attention,” she said.