BY CATHERINE NGUYEN
My dogs have saved my sanity on several occasions, and are a major source of comfort in my darkest days. They curled up in my lap while I cried, and wrapped their paws around my neck to hug me and let me know that I was never alone. They are the reason that I get out of bed to walk even on days when I was in deep despair. Without a doubt, they are my life raft.
It is not surprising then that there are many stories of how pets can help cancer survivors.
According to Cancer Treatment Centres of America, animal-assisted therapy for cancer patients can decrease anxiety and pain, lower blood pressure and help alleviate depression. Therapy pets may be especially beneficial to cancer patients by:
- Easing their anxiety and elevating their mood
- Offering company and comfort, thereby lessening feelings of isolation or loneliness
- Providing a distraction from pain, stress or boredom
- Relaxing them, especially since petting or snuggling with a soft, friendly animal may release endorphins that have a calming effect
- Motivating them to get better
- Increasing socialisation and encouraging communication
Mike Verano, a cancer survivor, animal lover and psychotherapist, believes that the impact that animals have on recovery is nothing short of miraculous. For him personally, the daily walks with his dogs were “an important ritual that provided a sense of normalcy to days where nothing made sense.” On days when he thought he couldn’t cope anymore, his dog would meet him at the door with a toy and a look that said “Yes you can, now let’s play fetch.”
According to Mike, “one of the more powerful (yet overlooked) aspects of having pets around during recovery is that they allow those of us who are in the care-receiving category to reach out and care for something beyond ourselves. This extension of loving energy has a rebound effect as we gain the awareness that, in spite of our illness, we have much to offer.”
Nicole Bailey, a survivor of pancreatic cancer, said that her dog Arleigh stood by her side through the darkest, loneliest, scariest time of her life. “He’d put his little paw on my face; dog spelled backwards is God – I really believe God gave me that dog.” She now visits residents of an assisted living home regularly with Arleigh to bring hope and joy to them.
Isaac Reed, an 11 year old cancer survivor, loved visits from therapy dogs at the hospital. “One night he was feeling pretty yucky and discouraged, but when the dog arrived, it brightened his spirits,” said Trisha Reed, Isaac’s mother. “I think the dog helped him see that not everyone who came to his room was there to bother him. It changed his whole mood.” He now helps to train his family’s new puppy to become a certified therapy dog.
Valerie Schumaker battled breast cancer together with Wrigley, a cat that she befriended and was diagnosed with lymphoma within weeks of her diagnosis. They went through chemo together and shared many experiences. Valerie lost most of her eyelashes and eyebrows while Wrigley lost his whiskers. She lost her hair while he lost his fur. Valerie took courage from sharing the experience with her friend Wrigley, and said that they would “march into remission, hand in paw.”
Pets may not be for everyone. For animal lovers however, they can be the best therapy available. They provide companionship, unconditional love and acceptance – all the key ingredients required to get you through life’s tough challenges.
Catherine has been volunteering with Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre since 2017, and joined Solaris Cancer Care as a blog writer in early August 2020. She lost both her father and her husband to cancer, and the experiences changed her life. Catherine developed a passion for researching all matters relating to cancer during her husband’s fight, and is keen to continue building on her knowledge and using it to help others.