How My Dog Helped Me Cope With My Cancer Diagnosis

Even though I’ve been a certified Canadian fitness professional since 1992 — and have practiced and taught many forms of exercise — I’ve only been running seriously since 2010. In 2011, I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where running outside year-round is possible. Snowfall is rare and doesn’t last long if it falls, and temperatures rarely get frigid enough to put a stop to a run. While living there for three years, I was in the best shape of my life and regularly competed in races where I was usually in the top three finishers for my age group. I also started running almost every day with my Irish Setter, Seamus O’Malley. He was, and still is, a great running companion, often urging me up hills when I might have passed on them.

In March of 2014 we moved back to Canada. It was a very difficult time for me. My mum had kidney problems along with heart issues. The doctors informed her there was nothing more that could be done and told her to settle her affairs. My mum was dying and my stepdad was having trouble coping. However, if I thought I was overwhelmed at that point, I was in for a magnificent slap in the face.

My mother died at 1:20 a.m. on Wednesday April 22, 2015. This was quickly followed by my stepdad’s stroke two weeks later, with a subsequent extended hospital stay and weeks of rehab, both of which resulted in months of worrying about him being on his own.

Just as things were starting to get back to normal, I was diagnosed with colon cancer on September 17. Boom! My world exploded in the six seconds it took my GI to tell me what she had found. There were a few things that saved me from utter depression and wanting to completely shut down. One of those things was Seamus O’Malley, my Four Leaf Rover. Thank God for him. On the days I felt the walls closing in and all I wanted to do was stay in my house and cry, there was Seamus reminding me it wasn’t always about me.

beautiful brown dog laying down in a living room.

I remember one particularly low point. It was about 10 a.m. and I was lying in bed after telling my husband before he left for work, at 7 a.m., that I’d get up right after he left. That turned out to be a rather large whopping falsehood. It was just easier to lie to him than argue. Anyway, all of a sudden the bed shook as Seamus jumped up and headed straight for my head, where he started to lick my face relentlessly. At first I was mad, which I’m ashamed to say, and I pushed him away. He is not allowed on the bed, and how dare he interrupt my melancholy? However, one look at his face as I yelled at him made me shut up. He was crestfallen. I could see clearly he was crushed. I felt horrible, which was quite a feat, considering I was already feeling at least 50 shades of horribleness.

I had a brief moment of clarity. I say brief because it would be disingenuous of me to say this moment completely cured me of any further caterwauling. For that particular moment in time, though, it did. I got myself up, washed my face, and pulled on some running gear. I watched Seamus dance around, clearly and completely excited about the prospect of being with me on a run, and I realized I was his complete world and I did not have the right to ignore him or to check out completely. On that morning, my Irish Laddie saved me from myself. We had a glorious run, with plenty of poop stops, as I recall. I felt normal and grateful to my four-legged boy. On that day, I was able to cope.

I’d love to tell you that all the following days leading up to my cancer surgery (and the eventual fabulous news that there was no lymph node involvement and no distant disease present) were filled with my fighting spirit, but that would be an invention. What I can say, however, is that every single time I allowed my Seamus to remind me there was a world out there he wanted to go and sniff, I felt better for it. I clung to those moments when they happened. I felt strong, purposeful and powerful and able to conquer this cancer.

For those of you without a dog, I imagine this might be hard for you to understand. For those of you who have chosen to have a dog in your life, I can imagine you nodding your heads in complete understanding. There are so many things I have learned from my dogs. When my first Irish was in agonizing pain from bone cancer, I never once observed her to snarl or snap at anyone. I can’t say the same for myself.

There were many people who were there for me in my hour of need. I do not want to minimize their impact. I will never be able to properly thank those friends and family who embraced me with love and understanding, but it was only Seamus O’Malley that never had that pitying look in his eye when he gazed at me. It was only Seamus O’Malley that basically told me with his manner, “Well, Mum — f*ck cancer — I just want to run with you and feel the wind and the sunshine on my face. The only way I can do that is with you, Mumma. I love you Mum, so come run with me and see and feel the world in all its glory. Come and feel better with me, run with me and feel capable”. So I did. Seamus O’Malley — my Four Leaf Rover.

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