The diagnosis of cancer is life-altering for all who are touched by it. When a child or a loving pet bears this burden, the tragedy seems particularly unfair, and brings cancer’s arbitrary and random selection home on a whole new level. Today, cancer is the number-one natural killer of dogs, regardless of breed, gender or age. In Denver, Colo., a unique support program is helping young human and canine cancer patients cope with their illness.
Enter Anne Ingalls, Colleen Chambers and YAPS—Youth And Pet Survivors—a pen-pal program that pairs children who have cancer with dogs (and in one case, a cat) also suffering from the disease. The participating child-dog pairs currently number 10, with some having enjoyed relationships spanning the last several years.
Ingalls, a registered nurse specializing in pediatric oncology at Children’s Hospital in Denver, describes the inspiration for YAPS as a “divine spark.” The program took shape after Ingalls was invited to join the board of directors of the Animal Care Foundation.
“There was a lot of discussion about what sort of program we might create that would blend these two populations of veterinary patients and children,” she says. “Children with cancer are very restricted [as] to what outside environments they can be exposed to, because of the heightened risks of injury and infection. Hospitals enforce these restrictions very stringently. That’s why we came up with the pen-pal concept—to bypass those restrictions.”
Colleen Chambers, surgical technician and practicing manager of the surgery department at the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado, keeps a book featuring pictures and biographies of all the participating animals. Dogs include Mary Jane, a Labrador; Sandy and Emma, both Golden Retrievers; a West Highland Terrier named Max; Ram, a Doberman-Labrador mix; and Bonkers, the program’s only cat.
“The children choose their own animal, often deciding on an animal that’s gone through the same type of cancer and treatments as they themselves have,” says Chambers. Each child also receives a copy of the book Annie Loses Her Leg but Finds Her Way, written by Sandra Philipson and illustrated by Robert Takatch, the true and very inspirational story of an animal who survives great adversity. A plush Annie doll also comes with the package.
After being paired, the children stay in touch with their dogs via letters and email. The owners of the canine participants respond for the dog. The owners, who include former teachers, educators and psychologists, are carefully screened to ensure their suitability and capacity to relate to the experiences and challenges that surround the disease.
The children are selected based on criteria that include energy levels and motivation. “I know a lot of these kids personally,” says Ingalls. “The nurses I work with also refer children to me, and I consider the factors of each case. It’s got to be something they want to do. We want their parents to support them, but not do the writing for them. Some kids who express interest initially look through the book and ultimately tell me that they’re just not up for it right now.”
One young man who recently made the decision to join YAPS is Sean Flanagan, an 18-year-old Denver resident. Sean’s canine partner is Boone, yellow Lab, who lost his right front leg. Sean and Boone met for the first time in late September at Bark in the Park, the annual YAPS picnic—one of several annual group events where kids, dogs, owners and families spend time getting to know one another, face to face.
“He’s great, he’s got so much energy,” says Sean of Boone. “He’s a lovable dog. We rode around together at the picnic in a golf cart, and he had his head in my lap.” In the basket behind the golf cart rode the Flanagan’s family dog, Maggie, a Miniature Schnauzer. “Maggie was the smallest dog there,” says Sean, “but she got along with everyone.”
Both the VRCC and nearby Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital are actively involved in exploring new cancer treatments in animal populations, providing advancements in the treatment and control of the disease, as well as hope for eventually declaring victory over it. CSU’s comparative oncology program rates as the largest of its kind in the U.S. Specialists in medical oncology, nutrition, radiation therapy, surgical oncology, pathology, physics and specialty nursing work in concert with researchers to implement state-of-the-art, individualized therapies in chemotherapy as well as photon and electron radiation.
Dr. Robyn Elmslie, a board-certified veterinary oncologist at VRCC, blends traditional medical approaches for fighting cancer with innovative treatments that include gene therapy for localized tumors and electrophoresis (see below).
YAPS offers therapy on an entirely different level, one that addresses the emotional component of the illness. Says Chambers, “There are a lot of pet therapy programs out there, but this one appears to be unique.”
Ingalls agrees, expressing her hope that other children’s hospitals and veterinary centers around the country might eventually add this program to their treatment options. She also hopes that one day, YAPS is international in scope.
“This could become a world phenomenon,” she says. “Ultimately, of course, part of the success will always depend upon the depth of the connection made between the child and the pet.” Often, strong and enduring relationships are forged between entire families, and the YAPS program becomes a healing experience for all involved.
“The kids get really attached to the animals,” says Chambers. “They’ll tell things to the animals they won’t tell to people, even family—they feel free to express their deepest fears. Animals are nonjudgmental, and they don’t carry the emotional stigmas that people do. They come through the experience of disease a lot stronger than most people.”
Photograph by Evan White and Mick Stevens