Arts & Culture
6:25 pm
Fri January 17, 2014

Horses Help McFarland Man Fight Rare Cancer

Tom Duffy of McFarland picks up his new harnesses for the work horses he bought after receiving a life-changing diagnosis.
Tom Duffy of McFarland picks up his new harnesses for the work horses he bought after receiving a life-changing diagnosis.
Credit Gianofer Fields

Becoming a cowboy isn't the first thing most people decide to do when they get a life-changing diagnosis. But then, Tom Duffy isn't like most people.

The McFarland man is one of only fifty people known to have a particular type of cancer, which his doctor discovered when Duffy went in to have a cyst removed.

It turns out, getting the worst news of his life was just the push he needed to pursue the hobby he'd been thinking about.

"I was kind of thinking about getting into horses and I got diagnosed with cancer a year ago, a very rare cancer and I decided that I was going to live out of the box and get draft horses," he says. "You know it’s life-altering to get cancer and horses at the same time. When you’re a kid you always want to build something, drive something or be a cowboy. I guess I turned into the cowboy."

Duffy says getting the diagnosis of aggressive digital papillary adenocarcinoma was frightening, and the next step was daunting.

"It was a cancer in my finger of all spots and they have to amputate your finger," he says. "Mentally preparing for them to amputate your finger is incredible. The surgeon said that most of his customers are not volunteers. It’s either a chain saw or a snow blower and here I have to to mentally say yes take my finger off and get this cancer out of my body."

As he faced that life change, Duffy prepared for another. He'd already purchased a small horse farm years prior, and had spoken to a man out west who had a few horses for sale. Before the cancer, he hadn't been in any hurry to buy them.

"On the day of my surgery, I called him and I said I’ll take all four horses and he said, 'God bless you, God bless you,' and I want into surgery," he says. "I wanted that to be on my mind when I got to recovery; I knew I was going to have four horses to heal me."

For some men, the traditional markers of a life-altering event include the stereotypical fast car or jet pack. But not Duffy.

"I don’t have a Corvette," he says. "My buddies all talked to me about getting a sports car. I have snow mobiles, I have jet skis, I have a pontoon boat with a 250 horsepower motor. You know, I have those toys, but those aren’t a passion or obsession."

Duffy says none of those things compare to hanging out in his barn.

"They’ve healed me. It really has," he says. "It gives you a reason and a purpose to get up in the morning besides going to work. I have my own company and all I did was work before, but now I have this passion, obsession and hobby."

Duffy trains his 8-foot-tall Belgian horses in a circular ring inside one of his barns. The only thing between him and 2000 pounds of draft horse is a stick and a rope.

"You’re mentally on high alert all the time when you’re driving these horses, because we don’t have a kill-switch, we don’t have a steering wheel and we don’t have brakes that are going to stop them," Duffy says. 

The horses and the community of fellow owners have kept Duffy so busy, he doesn’t have time to worry about anything else - not even cancer.

"You know just looking forward and keeping yourself occupied and having great people around doing great things keeps you not thinking about the cancer," he says. "Well, then you add horses and you really don’t think about cancer or the pain because you’re just trying not getting killed and you’re having a blast doing it. It’s truly an adventure."

Duffy says becoming a cowboy isn’t just about riding horses. It’s all the little things that create a new life after he nearly lost his old one.

"They say I have this permanent smile on me right now and I do," he says. "If they see that I wear cowboy boots on, 'Why do you have cowboy boots on?' I tell them that I’m into horses, too. My buddies all give me a hard time. They say I’ll get sick of it, I’ll get bored with it but I’ve been doing it about a year and a half now and I love going every morning to the barn at 6 AM. I can’t wait to get home in the afternoon to clean to train to enjoy and be with them. I named my place Avoidance Acres because we avoid all the reality that is around us.

Right now Tom Duffy is cancer free. Maybe in loosing part of his finger he found his true self. Between the boots and the smile, perhaps he really is what he once dreamt he’d be: a cowboy.

Gianofer Fields studies material culture at UW-Madison and is the curator of "It's a Material World" - that project is funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts.