My Dog’s Love Gave Me the Will to Live During Cancer


After being diagnosed with leukemia, my Golden Retriever, Payton, was my emotional caregiver and gave me the will to live.

In between treatment after my first diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, I worked in a new job remotely, and bonded more than ever with my dog-son, Payton. My Golden Retriever, Payton, was my sanity caregiver, providing me with the will to live. He gave me discipline, distraction and joy.

I was divorced and had no children. My family was out of state. My ex was still close to me and checked in often. My family’s calls were critical. My Afghanistan neighbors with their five beautiful kids were a second family.But Payton’s unconditional love was a constant presence that I needed — for both the cancer and my 16 year-long sobriety from alcoholism.

My immunosuppression made me extremely vulnerable; a fever could kill me. I had to be vigilant about my health, but there were germs lurking everywhere. I was home between chemo sessions and attempted to take Payton for a walk. I got wickedly cold and dizzy, so I turned around after only one block. At home, I stared into the eyes of my beloved companion while I shook and shivered violently. I positioned myself practically on top of the space heater (set to 11). I’m surprised my teeth did not crack from the manic chattering.” Vavavavavavaaaa….” I tried to take my temperature, but the thermometer kept falling out of my mouth. I shook so badly that I could not dial 911 on the phone.

It was Payton’s suppertime. He loved supper. He would speak retriever-ese to me with short chuffs to fetch his food. Yet, he did not budge! He put his head on my bouncing knees to help me calm down. Payton stared into my face, wondering if there was anything more that he could do to help me. His soulful eyes were otherworldly. Tears flung from my face. I stuttered my reassurance to him. I became determined to get better so this dog could have his supper.

I eventually captured a temperature of 102. After stabbing my phone repeatedly, I finally connected with someone and was taken to the ER for remedy. Payton was escorted by my neighbors to Central Bark for the night.

A thought for emergency rooms: When someone with zero white blood cells has their vitals taken at registration, the absence of an immune system is not taken into consideration. My fever decreased upon my arrival, so I was told to sit in the waiting room amongst a crowd of sick people. With no immune system, this was dangerous. My oncologist was contacted, and he immediately called the ER to get me promptly admitted.I did feel a little guilty as I was ushered in.

Months later, the last dose of chemo was finally administered. I was officially in remission. The word “cured” floated around. I was told, “If one gets leukemia, they would want your kind of gene mutation.”(I hope no one gets any kind of leukemia!)

With my new lease on life, I decided to move from Chicago to Tampa where my brother and his lovely wife lived. Warm weather would be welcome!

I found Moffitt Cancer Center as my place to go in Tampa, Florida, for routine check- ups. My Chicago oncologist from Northwestern highly regarded Moffitt Cancer Center. In time, I would come to love the place.

Payton deplored the drive. It took three days to get there, and he never put his head down once, despite his pillow palace in the back of my SUV. He looked at me through the rear-view mirror for the whole trip. There was a lot of play and love at hotels and rest stops. 

Once we arrived, Payton and I went everywhere we could together. Dog beaches. The mall. Pet stores. He loved the cool floors in Home Depot and would often plant himself near the grills with the idea that he would stay there for a couple of days. The workers loved him and looked after him while I got my lightbulbs.

I had the pleasure of meeting the wise and handsome Dr. Sallman, my currenthematologist/oncologist at Moffitt. I went in to see him quarterly for check-ups. That turned into every six months since things were looking rosy.

Yay gene mutation!

But then, two years later, Payton passed. My alcohol addiction resurfaced. And the cancer came back.

Spoiler alert: I’m back.

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