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Animal Health: Pets Help in Cancer Coping

By Alex Cukan
UPI Health Correspondent

Animals not only can help people become healthier by lowering blood pressure and feeling less pain, they also can help people heal when faced with a serious illness such as cancer.

"Animals, like children, are dependent on us and they trust us to be there to take care of them," Larry Lachman, an animal behavior consultant in Carmel, Calif., told UPI's Animal Health. "They give unconditional love and when they greet you in the morning they really want to know how you are and are willing to listen to how miserable you might be feeling."

Lachman, a clinical psychologist who leads weekly therapy groups for people with cancer and for those coping with grief and loss, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 at age 39. He credits his dog, Max, for easing his depression and loneliness and giving him a reason to get up in the morning.

"He needed to be fed, he needed to be taken outside and he needed someone to play with him," Lachman said. "He wasn't scared of my cancer or care that I needed to run to the bathroom. He lived in the moment and he gave me a renewed sense of purpose – he truly was the best medicine."

He added, "Max pulled me out of the deep emotional abyss that many cancer patients fall into following treatment."

Lachman, with poet Ric Masten, wrote "Parallel Journeys: A Spirited Approach to Coping and Living with Cancer." Both were diagnosed with prostate cancer and both have dealt with it in different ways. Lachman also wrote "Birds Off the Perch: Therapy and Training for Your Pet Bird," as well as "Cats on the Counter" and "Dogs on the Couch."

Lachman describes himself as a linear thinker while Masten is a self-described "out-of-the-box" thinker.

The left-hand pages of their book contain poems by Masten and the right-hand pages present cognitive coping strategies by Lachman.

Psychologists have known for a long time that information coming in from the left visual field crosses over to the right side of the brain, and vice versa, Lachman explained.

"The right side of our brain involves images, creative holistic processing of information and strong feelings," he said. "The left side of our brain involves words, sequential/logical processing of information and analysis."

According to Lachman, readers can read only the left-sided pages, only the right-sided pages or both – integrating "our parallel journeys."

Both Lachman and Masten said they believe everyone follows parallel journeys, whether life-and-death struggles with cancer, a sick child, the passing of a parent, a marriage in trouble or a career setback.

"At least, I have always been able to find someone who has been, or is going down that same river," Masten told UPI's Animal Health. "Just knowing that we are all on these parallel journeys gives me the puissance to continue on mine, there truly is strength in numbers."

At one time a song lyricist in Hollywood, Masten became a full-time poet in 1968 and said he is more comfortable reading a poem to communicate rather than speaking.

"I'm probably one of the few people in the United States to make a full-time living on poems, buying a house and supporting three children," Masten said. "My poems are meant to be listened to."

Masten was diagnosed with metastatic advanced prostate cancer four years ago at age 69.

His book with Lachman is filled with practical advice such as getting the physician to write everything down during the initial diagnosis because "once a person gets home he can't remember anything because of the shock."

The authors explain after "treatment" is over and the recovery begins might be hardest time for the patient. When treatment ends, a patient needs a support system of medical staff, family and friends to help shoulder emotional burdens return to their daily lives.

"There are secondary losses – loss of body part, loss of energy, loss of personal relationships, loss of appetite, loss of body appearance, loss of financial security, loss of work opportunities and the loss of missed opportunities," Lachman said. "It's important to feel these feelings."

During this period, when a patient must deal with a host of emotional issues, a pet can be most beneficial. According to Lachman, the mere petting of an animal can contribute to healing, especially after treatment.

"By the time I came home from my surgery and I had worn out my family and friends, but Max lessened my feelings of loneliness and depression, animals will listen to a person forever. My experience with Max is not unique. Many cancer patients tell me similar stories of recovery," Lachman said.

"My dog Chuckles, a flat-coated retriever, was instrumental in getting me through cancer," Heather Remoff, who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 1992, told UPI's Animal Health. "When I badgered an intern to give me some odds and he said 10 to 15 percent I was willing to surrender thinking that my children and grandchildren would understand the statistics were against me."

She added, "But then I thought that Chuckles couldn't understand these statistics or odds, and I thought, 'No way can I do this to this dog.'"

Remoff, the author of "February Light: A Love Letter to the Seasons During a Year of Cancer and Recovery," is a naturalist. She wrote a chapter on each month of the year on what was occurring in the natural world in her small town of Osprey Lakes, Pa., and her illness.

"Although Chuckles did not know why I had been gone, the rambunctious puppy did not jump up on me even though he was overjoyed to see me," She said. "It's as if he knew about the stitches."

After the abdominal surgery, Remoff could not climb the stairs so she slept on a couch downstairs.

"Chuckles has a lot of toys and he was pretty possessive about them, often when we had guests and a suitcase would be left on the floor, he would steal a pair socks or something and put it in his toy box," Remoff said.

"When I would be sleeping, Chuckles would take his toys and although I never felt anything, he tucked the toys around me – it was like a ritual – there are many way to interpret this, but I like to think he was giving me everything he had," she said.

"Animals help us pull through something like cancer, as does anything you love a lot."

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