“Those first couple of weeks were the darkest days I would say of our life. But through all of it I have come to realize how strong Ryan is. And he was 100 per cent the reason that we just kept going as a family almost like nothing had changed.”
In August 2021, Ryan Holliday was featured in Standardbred Canada’s Heart of Harness Racing Calendar thanks to a photo submitted by Lori Martin (featured above). The caption that accompanied the 2020 photo was a quote from Kobe Bryant.
"The moment you give up is the moment you let someone else win."
Less than a year later, no one could have realized how prophetic that quote would be for Ryan.
What started off feeling like a sore muscle turned into something no one could have ever expected. Anyone who works in physical labour knows that aches and pains come with the job. When Ryan started having mild pain in his thigh at the beginning of 2022, he never imagined it would be cancer.
After trying over-the-counter pain medication and stretching for a couple of weeks with no relief, the Mount Forest, Ont. area horseman booked an appointment with his family doctor in hopes of a solution.
The doctor booked an X-ray for the next week, and Ryan received the results over the phone a couple of days after. On March 17, 2022, Ryan’s life changed forever, when he was told he had a tumor growing on his femur.
The next few weeks were both a whirlwind and a standstill filled with medical appointments for bone scans, CAT scans and MRIs. Ryan travelled to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto for a biopsy of the tumor to diagnose the cancer.
The waiting and the unknowns were the worst part, as Ryan and his wife Caroline imagined the worst-case scenario.
“The months between March and June felt like a lifetime, just because you don’t know what’s going on,” Ryan told Trot Insider.
After six long weeks, the results of the biopsy came in, and he was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer known as diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. The cancer was growing in the bone marrow of his leg.
Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma is a known cancer but this situation was unique since this form of lymphoma is usually found in the lymph nodes.
“It was almost three months from the time we first found out there was a lesion at the top of his femur until we actually knew it was diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. That's a long time, but at least once we knew it was a treatable one,” said Caroline.
After the diagnosis at Mount Sinai, Ryan was referred to Grand River Hospital in Kitchener. He had a PET scan in May which revealed cancer the whole length of his femur: from his knee to his hip.
The next step in the treatment plan after the diagnosis and the scans was chemotherapy. Ryan viewed his battle with cancer with a harness racing mindset and believed this was a race he needed to win.
In June, Ryan started chemotherapy treatments every three weeks for a total of six rounds. He started his first round at Grand River and finished the five other rounds at the Mount Forest hospital where his wife Caroline works as a nurse.
The chemotherapy worked instantly and was very responsive: “Right before chemo started, it was quite a bit of pain to walk and two days after my first treatment I said I probably felt 80 per cent better,” said Ryan. “The pain just went away so very, very quickly.”
Ryan kept a positive outlook through treatment by interacting with others at the hospital in similar situations along with the support of the hospital staff.
“The team at Grand River was great, the people in the hospital are fantastic. They check in with you all the time and there’s great communication,” said Ryan about the level of care he received.
Conveniently, the hospital in Mount Forest was a five-minute drive from the Hollidays’ house. This made trips to and from chemotherapy much more bearable.
Throughout his treatment, Ryan was very immunocompromised and had to be cautious when resuming normal activities. Although he felt better physically, his body was still recovering and he had to stay as healthy as possible to avoid getting sick.
If there’s one thing that both the pandemic and Ryan’s cancer diagnosis made clear for the Hollidays, it’s that there is no ‘perfect time’ to do something that you either want to do or, in this case, must do.
“You realize with something like COVID that the things you maybe always thought you could do, all of the sudden you weren’t able to,” noted Caroline. “‘What have I been waiting for?’ So now, maybe everything isn’t perfect, but if you’ve been wanting to do it, do it.”
At the time of his diagnosis, Ryan was racing a couple of horses at his farm. He sent them to other trainers so he could focus on his health during his treatment and kept the horses that he owned.
Despite undergoing chemotherapy, Ryan showed up to the farm every day and cleaned stalls, helping out in any way he could. This created a sense of normalcy and routine in a seemingly uncontrollable situation.
“Ryan very much wanted to continue to do all of those things because that's what kept things normal. And that's I feel like what enabled him to get through it,” said Caroline.
Throughout the weeks of gruelling treatments, Ryan kept a positive attitude and viewed the process pragmatically, as a task that needed to be completed.
“Once you get to talk to the doctors about it and what the plan is going to be, it does ease your mind a bit, so I just looked at it like a job that needs to be done,” he explained.
Although he was still helping out at the barn as much as he could physically, he was still struggling emotionally. Cancer is as much a mental battle as a physical one.
“In this situation, I like to think I’m a mentally sound and mentally tough person I guess, but it wears on you sometimes. That was probably harder than the physical to be honest because physically I got better rather quickly, but the mental part is still there and obviously some days are worse than others.”
Ryan and Caroline knew they had to tell their children about their father’s treatment in a considerate manner. They put a creative twist on Ryan’s diagnosis to explain the situation to their young children Max and Maya, four and six years old at the time of detection.
Caroline, Max, Maya and Ryan Holliday
Ryan created a balance between protecting and educating his children, by telling them he had poison in his leg and needed to go to the hospital for medicine. This was a clever explanation, as their son Max put his own spin on his father’s story by telling people he got bit by a poisonous snake.
Both children were incredibly supportive of his journey and came to the hospital to cheer on their father when he rang the bell after his last round of chemo.
Ryan and Caroline’s friends and family were quick to help in any way possible. Ryan’s father Dave, brother Ben and family friend Dennis Hannath were among those who helped with the horses when needed.
“We were so fortunate to have so many good friends and family that know all of those types of things,” Ryan added appreciatively. “We always had people offering to help.”
Ryan’s support system also included his group of close friends who were eager to hear about his treatment. His journey provided a sense of clarity about the people in his life, as Ryan explained, “You really find out who your friends are in these situations.”
The timing of Ryan’s last round of chemotherapy was fitting, as he finished on Sept. 16, 2022, the day after World Lymphoma Awareness Day, recognized annually on Sept. 15.
The treatment was successful, as the cancer remained contained to his leg and shrunk a significant amount. After a short break from chemotherapy, Ryan had 20 sessions of radiation at Grand River in December 2022. The final step is monitoring with a specialist, which is ongoing every three months.
In terms of his health, Ryan has made a full recovery, “physically I’ve been feeling good for quite a while.” He received an overwhelming amount of support for his recovery from other drivers and fans since his return.
Looking back at the past year, Caroline believes Ryan’s diagnosis — and how he handled it — strengthened their family and helped them realize the important things in life.
“Through this whole year, we have definitely learned to just try to look at anything positive, because that's really what keeps you going.”
Ryan has stepped back from racing to focus on spending time with his family and growing his bin rental business. He still enjoys training his young horses and living what he calls “the farm life.”
Ryan had a follow-up appointment with his doctors last week, and according to Caroline, "all is good." The Hollidays are celebrating Ryan being one year cancer-free in a special way this weekend, tackling the Tough Mudder challenge with some of Caroline's co-workers on Saturday, Sept. 16 — the one-year anniversary of Ryan's last day of chemotherapy.
If there’s anything Caroline and Ryan want to share from Ryan’s story, it’s that early detection and self-advocating are key for treatment.
“You need to advocate for yourself and you need to listen to your body,” stressed Caroline. “If you know something is not right or something is different, go to the doctor, be proactive, You can get things early.
“Cancer is ruthless, and it happens to any of us.”
(A Trot Insider Exclusive by Katherine Fitzpatrick)