Necessary Comfort: Dogs Provide Unconditional Cancer Support

How a dog provides unconditional love, comfort and life lessons in caring for this patient with stage 4 cancer.
PUBLISHED July 20, 2019
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.

Several years ago, during the early days of my life with cancer, my oldest daughter added me to a Facebook group that is all about dogs. There are no discussions about the best kind of care, alternative ways of training, or whether or not any one breed of dog is better than another. Instead there are a lot of pictures and an entire, adorable language built around the group members' lives with their dogs. There are calls to help with naming a new puppy and thoughts sent when anyone shares that their dog is ill or dying. Facebook being what it is, I soon found myself in a couple of other all-dogs, all-the-time groups and I wasn't complaining about it. In fact, I once joked that the only things I see on Facebook are dog posts and the posts of a friend of that same daughter.

I joked about it, but it was true. Early in my life with cancer, I "silenced" a lot of people, including friends and family members, because I was going through enough without having to hear their thoughts about my life, my care, my loss, my sadness.

Making my social media a safe space, emotionally and mentally, gave me a place to find happiness in the photos of thousands of dogs and the occasional cat, lizard and horse. In real life, I found comfort in my own dog, Iris.

I'd like to be able to brag that she knew I had cancer before I did. That is not, as far as I know, true. Maybe because I was around her nonstop when she first came to our house or maybe because I'm the one who usually walks and feeds her, Iris has always been especially attentive toward me. She can tell when I am stressed out even if my voice is not raised and, these days, she barks in the window nearly every time I leave the house.

Iris provides comfort, love, warmth and enjoyment without asking very much in return. She likes walks, food, pats and to be allowed to lie down near the sidewalk to soak in the sun – and insists anyone passing by to also stop and pet her. She is a firsthand lesson in living in the moment and she is the ultimate caretaker for someone who doesn't need a lot of care at home.

But I was reminded today that her alert intelligence is trained on me at times when I really do need it. It has been a period of small but constant stress in my life because of changes with a lot of routines and people. Our walks now include a very interesting addition on Iris's part: Every time we turn a corner, she looks back at me as if for reassurance that I am okay. This gift of attention is one that makes me smile every time and, seeing that smile, she turns back around and continues to lead the way.

In winter, when I tend to slip and sometimes fall on icy sidewalks, Iris stops, sits down and will not continue if she has determined through her dog-sense that the approaching stretch of sidewalk is unsafe. If I convince her to keep going, she spends most of the rest of the walk – or at least until we're out of danger from slipping – looking back at me to ensure I'm safe.

There are many suggestions about what to say to someone with cancer, but even the most in-tune person would have to work hard to stay as silent yet give as much comfort as the dog that lets you cry into her fur.

I know from my Facebook dog groups that Iris is far from alone in her gifts. I like to think that the people who don't like or can't have dogs have a similarly selfless giver in their lives. If not, may I suggest looking into Facebook dog groups for remote loving?

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