My Dog Was by My Side Through the Toughest Cancer Days, and Now I’m Returning the Favor

After I was diagnosed with cancer, some people “ghosted” me, but my dog, Iris, never did.

I’m sitting in the dining room, the next room over from where my dog, Iris, is sleeping at last. I haven’t given her the tramadol or the dog ibuprofen this morning. I tried with the ibuprofen, but she won’t swallow it and she isn’t interested enough in the treat I also tried hiding it inside to gobble it down as she did just yesterday.

She’s been rapidly losing strength and mobility for the last month, but her personality has remained the same. It has been hard on her and on all of us as she declines. It is impossibly hard but she has an appointment at the vet this afternoon and, given everything, I’ve accepted what the vet is most likely to say.

She is almost 15 years old.

She has been with me the entire time I’ve lived with stage 4 cancer.

If you search online, it isn’t hard to find stories of pets who have saved their owners’ livesfrom fire, from criminals and from cancer. I have no idea if Iris knew how sick I was prior to my de novo stage 4 diagnosis. She has always been attuned to all of us in the house, and maybe particularly me because I have been home with her the most, taking her on daily walks, feeding her and just generally spending time near each other.

She didn’t poke at my breast or at my lungs, where the cancer had spread. She didn’t whine while cuddling close to those areas after ferociously barking at the mailman.

She did what every good dog (and they are all good dogs) did: she greeted me with enthusiasm, even if I was only absent long enough to take out the garbage cans, and protected me from all the dangers in our neighborhood, mainly icy sidewalks, people wearing sunglasses and that little black dog on the corner.

She sat close, a worried expression in her eyes, when I cried alone on the floor for weeks and weeks following my horrendous, paralyzing cancer diagnosis. She upped her guardian duties too, refusing to venture into any part of our usual walks that she now considered too risky. Some days, we could walk around the full block, other days, she would choose a place to stop, for her own reasons, and not go any further.

My mom is notorious in our house for following me around, a trait I also have (just ask my kids), and now Iris did the same. I couldn’t go anywhere without her watchful eyes on me.

Many people with serious illnesses experience “ghosting” by friends and even family. The people you thought would be there are not to be found. There’s loneliness even when surrounded by people you love and who love you, a constant, painful vibration.

Iris did the opposite of ghosting. She didn’t voice her opinion about my treatments or tell me to stay off the internet. She delighted in my bad dietary choices when they resulted in an occasional treat for her, and she offered connection even when it was probably frightening to come close to me when I was most scared.

It’s that way for so many of us with cancer. Our pets don’t have limits to their love, they give us strength and comfort and courage without restriction. I hope the last eight years Iris and I spent together have taught me how to be the same with the people I love now and those I’ll meet in the future.

But today I need to leave this room and go to the next, offering that same comfort to her.

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