Breast Cancer Survivors Rely on Their Pets to Aid in Recovery

<a href="">Audio Galleries:</a> Breast cancer survivors came together to produce a fundraiser calendar for the nonprofit Critters for the Cure. Listen to their stories <a href="">here</a>.
Audio Galleries: Breast cancer survivors came together to produce a fundraiser calendar for the nonprofit Critters for the Cure. Listen to their stories here.
By Photographs and Text by Carol Guzy
The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pets . . . makeup . . . lights . . . camera . . . action!

The stars are 13 dogs, two cats, a guinea pig named LilyPigLips and a small group of breast cancer survivors.

The women have gathered for a calendar photo shoot to raise money for others with cancer and provide wigs, transportation and some assistance with the bills. The organization behind the event is Critters for the Cure -- and because its members recognize the therapeutic value of pets, the charity also offers help with such things as vet bills and dog-walking.

Ali Stark, 70, of Gaithersburg was the inspiration for the calendar. Having received her diagnosis 32 years ago, she's now in Stage IV: "I've had metastatic breast cancer all over the place, all over my body, my liver, my bones. It cracked a rib and [entered] the brain, and then I thought, 'How dare you go to my brain?' " Stark credits her survival to Herceptin, which she calls a miracle drug, to her "angels" -- her son, Cliff; her husband, Joseph; and her best friend, Clancy Kress (president of Critters for the Cure) -- and to her two beloved dogs.

Stark lost her 9-year-old standard poodle, Molly, last year to cancer as she was struggling with her own illness, and it took her a while to open her heart to a feisty yorkie-poo. "Molly was like my soul," she says. "It was very hard on me because the two of us were fighting cancer and Molly lost her battle, and I was grieving a tremendous amount. But along came Eloise. . . . I think she is one of the things keeping me going, keeping me alive. . . . So, I am blessed. No matter what happens from here on in, I feel blessed."

There are some common themes in the way the women talk about how their pets have journeyed with them through their cancer. "Just their warm heartbeat lying next to me was incredibly healing," says Connie Reider, who finds purpose in a workshop she teaches for cancer survivors called INscape, the Healing Art of Photography, and finds comfort in her Portuguese water dog named Splash.

"It didn't matter whether I was bald, or exhausted, or felt like a toxic waste dump, they were there to curl up next to me to nap or purr or entertain," says Patricia Liberatore about her two Maine coon cats. "The humans in my life were pretty spectacular. . . . But in the quiet times, the middle of the night when the demons came out to whisper a dreaded thought, or in the day when a nap was essential, or when tears would flow for no apparent reason, it was the girls, my critters, who gave comfort."

For some, the animals are more than a source of solace. Julia Scott learned to laugh her way through her illness, she says as she paints her dog's nails orange for Halloween. Leslie Foxman chuckles as she scratches LilyPigLips under the chin.

Perhaps the most striking story comes from Bev Gilstrap-Noble, who credits her dog, Chevis, with detecting her cancer early. His relentless sniffing at her breast encouraged her to get checked again, even after a negative biopsy. He was, she says, "her second opinion."

Gilstrap-Noble's is one of many inspirational stories in Critters Speak, the nonprofit's magazine, which documents the women's cancer journeys, says Kress, who founded Critters for the Cure in 2006. Working together "makes us laugh, makes us cry a little bit. . . . It's something that helps other women that might be going through the same experience. It gives them something to give them hope."

More information about Critters for the Cure is available at http://www.crittersforthecure.comor 301-977-3776. Comments:

© 2008 The Washington Post Company