What My Service Dog Taught Me About Accepting Life After Cancer


Cancer survivors have to face a new normal after a diagnosis. Jane describes how her service dog taught her to accept this with grace and dignity.

I honestly think the term “new normal” is overused, but can’t think of a better description.

I don’t know anyone whose life hasn’t changed after cancer. Even the people who valiantly work and raise a family have to adjust their lives around chemo, doctor’s visits and medications. Some people have to quit their jobs and plough through the bewildering maze of paperwork and applying for disability. Other survivors, such as those with breast cancer, have to change their body image, which is extremely difficult.

Throughout my life, I’ve made several drastic changes. Some of these included moving to another town, changing careers and going back to school for two advanced degrees. Each time I achieved a “new normal” and adjusted accordingly. However, the new normal for cancer has been decidedly different. I never sobbed as hard as when my chemotherapy schedule forced me to retire from a job I loved.

Looking back, I realized that I cried because this decision was forced upon me, instead of me making it voluntarily. The challenge for me was defining a purpose in my life after 42 years of working many hours.

My new life went from being work-centric, with all my activities planned around my job, to enjoying myself and relaxing. This was a huge change, but not so bad once I did it! I would not want to join the work force again, because I don’t feel up to the challenges.

Parallel with the new lifestyle was the journey with my hearing ear dog, Sita. We have been partnered and spent every minute together for 10 years. When I first received her at age 3, we ran every day after work to a nearby school playground. She would roam the grounds, sniffing every foot of the place and chasing anything that moved like a squirrel or a rabbit. She was in doggy heaven, as witnessed by the joyous barking on the way to her favorite place. It is the only time she has ever barked, since service dogs are not supposed to. She was so happy that I allowed it!

We later moved to another place directly on a golf course. As she aged and I became weakened by chemo treatments, we would settle for a walk around the driveways where the townhouses and apartments were located. There is a park in the middle of the complex. Between the park and the golf course, she could sniff to her heart’s content.

Then she hurt her leg and began limping. We changed our normal again to staying outside at a picnic table in the park where she could lie down. Finally, that walk got too far, and she is content to lie down on the grass directly in front of my apartment. Here she can be the queen diva and be petted by all the neighbors walking by.

As the injury has progressed, she is only allowed outside with a leash. I was depressed and upset, while she was content to lie in the grass and sniff for hours.

If only I could be more like my dog. I have fought my new normal every step of the way. I have questioned every decision from quitting my job to forcing myself to relax. I still push too hard, and after holidays and special events, I sleep for days to recuperate. I am on permanent chemo so, I know that my old energy will never return.

And if the truth is told, some of this is due to simple ageing. My friends and relatives still tease me about the sputtering I did the first time a student called me elderly. But — I am!

I have two choices here. I can resent the new normal, I can fight it and I can be bitter about it. Or I can look on the positive side. I am never worried Sunday evenings about going to work Monday mornings. I do not have a mountain of papers to grade in my living room. I can watch “Law and Order” all night long if I wish and take naps in the afternoon!

I look at my dog and wonder if she ever dreams about her younger days running across the fields. She probably does, as evidenced by her barking and moving her legs when she is dreaming. But she doesn’t worry or fret. She sits outside complacently sniffing the air, accepting belly rubs from the neighbors and nibbling on her kibble like it is a piece of steak. We can fight our new normal or accept it. It takes a dog to teach me which is better.

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