With Cancer, Stay Calm, for the Dog's Sake


If you can't save yourself, try focusing on the family pet, says one cancer survivor.

Fears of cancer recurrence triggered by, well, not-so-common diarrhea ultimately led me to choose the mindset to stay calm. It turned out I had gotten Clostridium difficile (C. diff) once again from surgeries related to my breast cancer. I decided to try to keep calm and carry on. Cancer just didn't want me to get back to normal. The C. diff was caused by being run down and taking the antibiotics that came with my double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.

My husband had left to run some errands. My last child had flown the coop two weeks ago, all the way to another continent! So, of course a health worry would crop up. My doctor called (never a good sign) to confirm that I had C. diff. In the house alone with the dog, I decided I could choose to stay calm — for her sake.

My poor dog had watched our pet and human family dwindle from six down to just the two of us after the older dog passed away and our children made us empty nesters. She was looking a little forlorn and lost. I suspect that if I left or if I lost it to ranting and tears, it might actually be her last straw, so instead, I vacuumed. Don't freak the dog out, Barb. You can do this, I told myself.

Someone (the dog) deserved a little stability and calmness. After vacuuming, we played ball outside for a while. If I couldn't make me happy, I knew how to make her happy. She appreciated having a job to do (retrieving), and making her happy helped distract me. Next, we settled down on the couch in front of the television together, close to the bathroom — my temporary best friend. It wasn't the most productive day, but together we got through it.

Cancer sometimes tries to rob me of my joy with side effects like C. diff that can happen years down the road. It helps to fight back with my dog at my side. I feel less alone and live more in the moment.

My dog often demands attention right now. Life as cancer survivors is often happier when lived in the now rather than leaping mentally ahead to worry about all the "what if's" that survivors find themselves mentally rehearsing in their heads. I don't think my dog really worries about the future, but I know I do.

My dog is soft and warm. Sometimes I try just to focus on this tactile pleasure. She likes it and I do too. In the middle of the night, I press one of my legs against her and feel the gentle pressure returned. Sometimes I also need to reach down and stroke her fur. When she shakes the bed or kicks me with her feet, I wonder what she is dreaming. Even pondering what is going on in her head helps get me out of my head for a few precious moments.

While I type, she lies at my feet in the kneehole of my desk with our toes touching. The house is quiet and we both benefit from the connectedness. If and when all else fails on this weird journey called cancer survivorship, my dog and I can choose to live together in the moment.

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