My Dog Helped Me Deal With A Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Several years ago, I watched a TV news segment on dogs’ exceptional sense of smell. They can identify, as it was reported, a single drop of blood in an Olympic-sized pool. They can catch a whiff of a rotten apple among two million barrels. But what really blew my mind was learning that canines are capable of detecting — by scent alone, remember — cancer in the human body. Even in situ, at stage zero. That’s how sensitive dogs are.

The memory came back to me shortly after I was diagnosed with my own ductal carcinoma last March. To be clear, my dog, a five-year-old Hound-cross named Bunny, did not sniff out my disease. (He is clumsy and slobbery and has a bad habit of getting into the trash.) He did however, identify everything that came afterwards: all the hard stuff like sadness, fear, anger, and anxiety. And every single day since he has sat quietly, humbly in the presence of my pain.

As I’ve written before, breast cancer felt like a bomb that went off on my life. It destroyed every sense of myself and despite my very best attempts, I couldn’t cry it away or eat it away or drink it away or even therapy it away. Facing the end of my 10-year relationship, a nasty and litigious separation, selling and moving out of my beautiful house and the death of a few family members in the short space of a year didn’t help.

Needless to say, I didn’t handle it well. But in the midst of all that agony, and offering him almost nothing in return, my dog would never stop being by side in the hope that time and his presence would offer healing.

Bunny continues to be a balm.

I could share with you countless studies on the benefits of therapy dogs. About how they’ve been found to help people cope with depression, fatigue and stress. Pet owners report higher levels of self-esteem, empathy and energy, as well as a greater sense of belonging and a more meaningful existence than non-pet owners. Simply petting an animal is known to lower blood pressure and relieve anxiety; it’s a scientific fact that they make us healthier and happier.

My dog, of course, doesn’t care about any of this. All he wants is to be fed, to go outside and play. And if we hadn’t I would have drank myself into the ground. With him, I always had someone to walk with, and when everything felt out of control, Bunny brought a sense of order and structure to my life. When I wanted to fall apart, he was my four-legged reason to keep it together. And in the throes of treatment in particular, he let me find peace.

Bunny also didn’t betray me like my body did or people whom you never thought they would. He didn’t try to make sense of things or require more than what I could reasonably offer. And he didn’t try to convince me that it’s always going to be all right or that everything happens for a decent reason. Because that’s the thing about cancer: You don’t need unsolicited advice, you need love.

I am now cancer-free. I’m also now one of those women who lives alone while depending on her dog for long-term companionship and tactile comfort. I regularly foster rescue dogs, too. I snuggle with them while watching Netflix and occasionally spoon with Bunny in my bed. His face is the first thing I see each morning, asleep on the pillow beside me. Until he forces me to get up and out for his morning walk. My dog keeps me moving forward, leading me into the next chapter. – Aya McMillan

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