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Post-Cancer Trauma Animal Therapy

How the company of a puppy provided the right amount of post-trauma comfort to help navigate in a post-cancer world.
PUBLISHED June 13, 2019
A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at

At some point during active treatment, I felt this tremendous need to nourish, cultivate and care for something other than myself. Of course, my husband and three children were my top priority, in addition to caring for myself as I went through months of chemo for Stage 4a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. But as days stretched long and lonely while I was isolated in my home for hours at a time, I yearned for companionship. During the winter months, my kids would come home with runny noses and fevers, and I would have to further quarantine myself so in my immunosuppressed state so I wouldn't catch any illness. Having socially isolated myself for so many months, re-entry into the world after reaching remission was difficult.

Initially, I tended to my little porch garden, growing kumquats and basil, cucumbers (unsuccessfully!) and tomatoes. While gardening helped with my need to cultivate something other than my family and myself, it did little to solve my social isolation. I started retreated into myself, withdrawing completely from the outside world.

For years, our kids have been asking us for a puppy. And for years, we have been saying no. With three children under the age of nine, we felt ill-equipped to handle the extra work that comes with caring for a pet. But our kids were relentless and after a year dealing with a mom with cancer, we wanted to bring some joy and happiness into their lives.

Once we decided it was a good time to get a puppy, I focused on making sure we got the best breed for our home and family. We live in a small apartment, so we needed a small dog. Plus, our children are pretty young, so we wanted a sociable breed that would be child friendly. In January, we drove two hours to pick up our first family puppy. Wyatt, aptly named, is a gorgeous Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who wags her entire body with happiness and has filled our home with lots of love.

Little did I know that Wyatt would provide tremendous comfort to me as I struggled with life as a cancer survivor. I exercise daily now, taking her out multiple times a day for walks around the neighborhood. I've discovered I particularly enjoy the quiet solitude of an early morning walk on the weekends. She has provided me with companionship during the day when I'm working home alone and my husband and children are at work or school. I no longer feel so alone with my thoughts when I have her to focus on. And she always seems to know when I need a cuddle and will curl up to me on the couch or at my feet right when I need that extra love the most.

I've met so many fellow dog owners and puppy lovers since we got Wyatt and I have slowly started coming out of seclusion. I spend more quality time with the kids, who join me on our walks with Wyatt. And when scanxiety hits, I focus on Wyatt and just breathe.

Post-trauma animal therapy might not be for everyone, but for me, having Wyatt to care for and focus on has made such a difference in my post-cancer life.

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