Unconditional Love from Furry Friends

Dr. Julie Silver, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, illuminates the positive impact animals can have in supporting, helping, and healing patients with cancer.
April 2015 Vol 1 No 2
Julie Silver, MD
Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Boston, MA

Not long after I was diagnosed with cancer, I came across a book called Animals as Teachers & Healers at a local bookstore. You may have heard about or even read this book (it was a New York Times bestseller). The author, Susan Chernak McElroy, wrote it 10 years after getting a devastating cancer diagnosis with a grim prognosis. She credits the animals in her life, both living and deceased, with having saved her life.

Susan Chernak McElroy

McElroy writes, “Only thirty-seven when I was initially diagnosed with a malignant tumor in my mouth, my medical prognosis was poor. These tumors are usually found in old, cigar-smoking, heavy-drinking men. When they appear in young, clean-living women like me, they usually spread like a chemical fire.” McElroy’s doctors discovered that her tumor had spread to the lymph nodes, and they didn’t expect her to live more than 2 years.

I bought this book along with a stack of other books on various subjects. The cashier efficiently scanned each one, but when she got to Animals as Teachers & Healers, she told me, “I loved this book. Why are you buying it?” Caught a little off guard, I told her that I wanted to use it as research for a book I was writing about how pets affect people’s health. She was instantly intrigued and told me that after what she thought was 20 years of marital bliss, her husband walked in one day and said he wanted a divorce. She was completely stunned. In addition to this bombshell, she was struggling physically and was getting medical treatment for an injury she had recently sustained.

This lovely woman was quite emotional and told me how her dog had helped her to psychologically recover from her divorce and physically mend from her injury. She confided, “My dog seemed to know that I was having a hard time and just stayed by my side. He made me happier, and this helped me to heal.”

Not surprisingly, when I was writing my book, What Helped Get Me Through, and asked survivors what helped them during and after cancer treatment, they often mentioned their animals.

One woman said that her home was filled with animals and the love they gave her made all the difference. Many people said that their dogs helped them to stay active and enjoy the peace of the outdoors. A breast cancer survivor said, “I took long walks with my dog in the park near my home every day. I really became aware of how precious I am and how precious my life is. That has never left me—what a blessing.”

Another woman shared, “I got myself a sweet little dog from a rescue center. She brings such total joy to me. She reminds me how much fun it is to just be silly and free-spirited.” Kyle, a pastor, reported, “Noah, my old English Sheepdog, offered me warmth when the chills were so bad. He checks up on me at every opportunity of the day and takes me for walks.”

Dogs weren’t the only furry friends. One woman explained that her husband brought her a kitten just as she was starting treatment and the cat is still by her side.

A Texas mother diagnosed with colorectal cancer rode horses and made this a family tradition. She wrote, “My daughters have grown up riding horseback under a full moon, getting lost in a cornfield, smelling flowers on the side of the road, camping, walking, and having many memorable adventures.”

Support comes in many different forms, and the unconditional love of animals may bring tremendous comfort just when you need it most.

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Last modified: September 27, 2017

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