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Speaking of Pets and Cancer…

When we are diagnosed with lung cancer, or any cancer for that matter, a lot of serious questions bombard our brains. Am I going to die? Why did this happen to me? Who will care for me? Will my insurance cover all of my new medical expenses? Can I continue working? Will my friends and family support me, or desert me? And so many more questions arise. But one question that may not occur to folks, especially those on the outside looking in, is what effect will this have on my care for and relationship with my pet(s).

Pets Are Part of the Family

Our dogs and cats, bunnies and birds, fall into that “take for granted” category in many respects. They join our families and live with us, often for many years. They become just a routine part of everyday life. But when major illness strikes, they are, indeed, impacted. We may be too ill to walk the dogs or clean the cat’s litter box. The smell of their food may make us queasy because of the ongoing side effects of harsh drug treatments we are receiving. Maybe, we are just sad and lethargic and pretty much oblivious to the world around us for a while, even though our pets continue to need love and attention.

On the other hand, at just the time we may find it difficult or even impossible to care for our beloved pet, they sometimes inherently understand what is happening and act in ways that are more than caring. They become little nurses and guardians. (
Karen and her dog Aspen

My Pets Help Me & We Help Others Together

Some years back, my Golden Retriever, Aspen, and I were weekly volunteers in a large medical center’s “Top Dog” program. They understood the value of pet therapy and built it into their recreational therapy department. Each Saturday, I would tie a pink bandana around her neck, attach her picture badge to her collar, and head off to see very ill patients and their families who were visiting. Aspen didn’t only cheer people up through her visits, she allowed patients to physically use their arms and hands to pet her. She allowed them to smile and relieve physical and emotional stress. Aspen was not only a goodwill ambassador, she was a nursing assistant.

Karen's dog BellaMore recently, my American Cocker Spaniel, Bella, always curled up on top of the comforter on my bed before settling into a comfortable sleep each night. After I was diagnosed with lung cancer and began my first series of chemotherapy treatments, something changed. Was it something she sensed through smell, or through a slight change in my behavior or breathing patterns? In any event, during that series of chemotherapy treatments, and only during that 5-month period, Bella would wait until I got into bed and turned the light off to ever-so-gently walk up to the top of the comforter and ease her way under the covers to snuggle up tight against me to sleep for the night. It was as though she was doing what only a beloved pet could do in this way. It was a perfect form of emotional and even spiritual sustenance for my ailing body and soul at just the time I needed it most.

When I completed the chemotherapy treatments and some of the physical side effects that had troubled me during the period went away, Bella returned to her previous habit of sleeping on top of the comforter. She remained my faithful companion until her death from complications of pancreatic cancer surgery in 2014. Our pets most definitely play an important role in our journeys through cancer and the challenges it brings. What part has your pet played in your cancer story?


Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on June 8, 2019, Karen Loss passed away. Karen was a valued member of the lung cancer community and an incredible advocate and avid writer. She will be deeply missed.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • coco1101
    2 years ago

    Our pets are our family. They see, hear, smell everything going on in our home – it’s their home too, it’s their job and they bring a unique perspective to the things happening around us in our mutually shared home. I believe every pet, OK, most pets, know we are receiving treatment of some kind. I believe they know when their owner, family, etc. are experiencing something new or something different from the norm. Something about us, our body, our smell, like Karen said – maybe our breathing… something has changed in us that alerts our pets to be more aware of ‘what’s going on here’?

    Our pets notice everything that may be changing – they probably don’t react to all of these changes or differences because they are animals… The best comfort, other than the human kind is a loving pet… After all, our pets are definitely family.

  • Karen Loss author
    2 years ago

    I truthfully tell people that when my Golden Retriever, Aspen, was living with me for 14 years, I believe we were known to most who knew us not as Karen and Aspen…but as KarenandAspen. We were not two, but one. We did everything together and we understood each other in the best way that humans and canines can. And, as I wrote in this short column, Bella was a sweet Cocker Spaniel who shared her warmth and cuddles freely. She knew how to help me heal. Dogs are the best! (And I know, cats and other pets can be too.)

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