Pet Therapy during Cancer Treatment
December 07, 2020
By a Dog
Suleika Jaouad at home with her dog, Oscar.
Anne FranceyShareBy SULEIKA JAOUAD
December 23, 2013
Ever since a therapy dog visited me in the hospital during my first cycle of chemotherapy in May 2011, I became fixated on the idea of having a dog of my own one day.
When you are talking to a dog about cancer, there are no judgments or taboos. The therapy dog, a small energetic King Charles Spaniel, jumped around on my hospital bed playfully tugging at the blanket on my lap. For the first time since I had fallen ill, I didn’t feel like I was being treated as if I were made of porcelain. The therapy dog made me feel like a human first, and a cancer patient second.
During the first year of my cancer treatment, adopting a dog was out of the question. I spent more time in the hospital than out. And in the time I was able to spend at home, I had to live in a germ-free bubble to protect my fragile immune system. As a substitute for a real dog, my mom found “Sleepy,” my childhood stuffed dog in the attic. As embarrassing as it was for me to be toting a stuffed animal at age 22, Sleepy was the next best thing to a real puppy. He made me feel like a kid again, safe and innocent to the cruelties of the world.
Six months after my bone marrow transplant, I finally got the green light from my doctors to get a real puppy. I promised my parents that I would take numerous precautions to protect my health. The dog would wear disposable booties on walks, to keep his paws as germ-free as possible. I promised to wear gloves when walking and feeding him, vowed that he would never sleep in my bed and lined up four friends to help take care of him when I lacked the energy.
I spent months trolling animal adoption websites for the perfect furry companion but as soon as I saw Oscar, I knew I had to bring all four, wiggling pounds of him home with me. With his soft white fur, tiny heart-shaped nose, and hazel eyes, it was love at first sight.
But within 72 hours of living with Oscar, I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake. I had meticulously geared up for his arrival (teething toys, a crate, and an armload of cleaning products and stain removers: check, check, and check). But nothing could have prepared me for the task of sprinting outside of my apartment building at the crack of dawn with a peeing 8-week-old schnauzer-poodle mix. After a bone-marrow transplant and two and a half years of ongoing chemotherapy, my muscles were weak and my energy nonexistent.
Walking Oscar quickly became the most dreaded part of my day. After a few blocks, he was warmed up and ready for a run in the park. I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to crawl back into bed.
When my boyfriend Seamus is home from work, he shares the responsibilities of taking care of Oscar. But during the day, it’s just me and the dog.
Oscar, unlike my caregivers, doesn’t care that I’m tired, feeling nauseous after my chemotherapy treatments. Every morning between 6 and 7, Oscar scoots over to my side of the bed and begins the process of baptizing me with his tongue until I wake up.
Caring for Oscar is not always easy, but trying to keep up with him has been some of the best medicine I’ve received since my cancer diagnosis. Oscar and I have even shared similar experiences, and together, we’ve slowly matured and grown more disciplined. He no longer pees on the Oriental rug in my living room, and I have stopped sleeping in until noon. Oscar just finished getting his booster shots, and I will soon be getting all of my childhood vaccinations for the second time (a patient’s immunizations are lost during a bone marrow transplant).
Walking up and down stairs used to be a challenge for us. I felt weak and unstable on my feet after spending so much time on bed rest. And Oscar’s short, stubby legs meant that more often than not, he would end up tumbling rather than walking down the stairs. Now, we bound up and down the stairs with ease, taking them two by two.
I’ve found that I do some of my best thinking during our early morning walks — those few hours after the garbage trucks have gone and before the coffee shops open when Manhattan is as asleep as it ever will be. For that one hour each morning, I’m focused on the now.
Because of Oscar, I have discovered the Tompkins Square Park dog run where we‘ve made lots of new friends. There’s Mochi, the terrier mix who likes to wrestle in the sand with Oscar. And Thelma and Louise, the shy brother and sister beagle duo who prefer to watch the other dogs play from a distance. I get my morning comic relief from watching Max, a giant hound, whose favorite extracurricular activity is attacking the fur trim on women’s winter coats.
As for the dog precautions that I promised my parents, we have tried to stick to most of them. I wash my hands regularly, and as my immune system has grown stronger, we’ve graduated to wiping down Oscar’s paws each time he enters the apartment. It won’t surprise any dog owner that Oscar has wriggled his way into the bed, but at least he sleeps at the foot of it.
Although I was the one who rescued Oscar from an animal shelter, it has become clear that he’s done most of the rescuing in our relationship. We’re still working on “heel” and other basic commands. When we leave my apartment, Oscar bounds ahead of me, tugging at his leash as he guides me toward the dog park. For the first time in a very long time, it’s not the cancer that leads. It’s Oscar.
Suleika Jaouad (pronounced su-LAKE-uh ja-WAD) is a 25-year-old writer who lives in New York City. Her column, “Life, Interrupted,” chronicling her experiences as a young woman with cancer, appears regularly on Well. Follow her updates on Twitter or Facebook.