Cancer Patient’s Best FriendBy SULEIKA JAOUAD reposted from The New York Times Blog
When I was growing up, my dream was to one day become a veterinarian. In fourth and fifth grade, I volunteered every day after school at a veterinarian’s clinic. I didn’t view it as an “internship” — in my mind, I was apprenticing for a certain future in the field. When I was 10, I asked for an incubator for Christmas. By spring, I was carting around a dozen baby chicks in my purple doll stroller. In middle school I walked dogs at the local animal shelter. But as I got older, there was college, summer travel, then my first real job, at a law firm in France. I was entering the “real world,” as they say in commencement speeches. And there was no room in my adult life for a dog.
Then, a year and a half ago, came my cancer diagnosis, and with it the return home. I found myself pleading with my parents for a puppy, just as I’d done as a child. But I knew the medical reality: My weakened immune system, the result of chemotherapy, made getting a dog impossible. My doctors didn’t even think twice about rejecting the prospect, though I still made it a point of asking every few months.
In early September, I was shocked when I received a voice mail message from one of the nurses in the bone marrow transplant clinic. Instead of rescheduling an appointment or changing the dosage of one of my medications, she had dog-related news: My doctors had decided to give me the green light on adopting a furry friend. In fact, they encouraged it. My immune system was stronger — not as strong as it could be, but relatively strong for a patient in the first six months after transplant. And caring for a pet, my doctors told me, might even be therapeutic. As a cancer patient, I’m always being prescribed medicine. But I never thought I’d get a prescription for a puppy.
I didn’t waste much time. The same day I headed with my boyfriend, Seamus, to Animal Haven, a rescue animal organization in Lower Manhattan. As we skimmed their selection of dogs, I began to feel overwhelmed. There were big dogs and small ones, old and young. How could I pick my future companion as if I were shopping for shoes in a catalog? But when I saw Schnoodle, a 9-week-old miniature schnauzer and toy poodle mix with big brown eyes, floppy puppy ears and soft white fur, I couldn’t resist. I didn’t need to see any other dogs. I knew I had to bring him home. In the cab ride home, “Schnoodle” became “Oscar,” named after my favorite writer, Oscar Wilde, and Seamus’s favorite basketball player, Oscar Robertson.
I’m giddy these days since Oscar came into my life. Caring for a pet is a welcome distraction from the day-to-day reality of being a cancer patient. I’m not sure what it is about puppies, but holding Oscar instantly makes me feel better. I’ve had him for only 13 days, but my new favorite pastime is to watch him sleep, his tiny black paws twitching as he chases rabbits in his puppy dreams. The warmth of his little body and the steady beat of his heart against my chest distract me from my anxiety. He brings me instantly to the present.
In the short time Oscar has been in my life, he’s had an effect on my relationships. Rather than staring at my bald head, passers-by stop to play with Oscar and to tell me how cute he is. The other tenants in my building now say hello to my dog before greeting me. And instead of discussing my symptoms and treatment plan for the week, my boyfriend and I have been spending more time focused on puppy playtime, going on long walks in the park and taking Oscar to his obedience classes. It’s nice not to be the center of attention for a change.
But the reality is that I am a cancer patient. I have to take extra health precautions, like wearing gloves when I clean up after him and washing my hands thoroughly. It’s work, but I enjoy the structure, something cancer patients often lack. I share responsibility for Oscar with my boyfriend, which allows me to rest when I need to.
For now, I’m in a tenuous type of remission reserved for “high risk” leukemia patients in the first year after transplant. I still feel anxious at each appointment, as I wait to hear that the previous week’s test results are all right. I still take medicine (23 pills a day, by my last count). I still have my weekly appointments at the hospital. And every three weeks, I do a five-day course of preventive chemotherapy.
But it’s a sign of my progress that I’m allowed to be around a dog at all. My immune system is getting stronger, my doctors tell me. Oscar can’t change what’s going on in my bone marrow. But I can feel that he’s already working magic.
Suleika Jaouad (pronounced su-LAKE-uh ja-WAD) is a 24-year-old writer from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Her column, “Life, Interrupted,” chronicling her experiences as a young adult with cancer, appears weekly on Well. Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter