Healthy Family  >  How My Dog with Cancer Taught Me About Life

How My Dog with Cancer Taught Me About Life

Once upon a time, I was the lone girl in an all-boy household.

It was my husband, our two sons, our dog Harley, and then me. Make no mistake, I love my guys - but sometimes being the only woman in the house can be tough.

Finally, in late 2000, my girl arrived. She had beautiful golden fur, four oversized paws, and two bottomless brown eyes that saw straight into my heart.  We named her Willow. I immediately bought her a girly pink collar and leash to match.  (She has had doggy accessories in every shade of pink since.)

I finally had the feminine energy I needed, and for close to 12 years, Willow and I have been inseparable. In her younger days, she came with me every morning on my 6-mile run, protected our family with her ferocious bark (and wagging tail), and got into all kinds of mischief from treating our furniture like a chew toy to bringing us bunnies she “caught” in the yard.  She’s a real foodie too (not surprising) - she even devoured an entire chocolate zucchini bread once. She’s my girl, my constant companion, and my best friend.

So when the vet broke the news Willow had terminal cancer and only 3-6 months to live… I fell to pieces. We were gently informed that while treatment options were available, there was less than a 50% chance of success at best. “It might improve the cancer, but also might make other things worse.”

Just being in that vet’s office made her shake like a leaf – how would she possibly handle weekly chemo appointments? Could I really do that to my little girl? I knew if I put her through treatment, it would’ve been because of my own fear of letting go. I couldn’t do it.

Then, my husband and I made one of the toughest calls of our lives: we would forgo the chemo and radiation, and let nature take its course.

It has been 5 months. Willow is still with us, and I’m grateful for every day. This experience has been a huge shift in perspective for me (and all the guys in my house).

So from my heart to yours, here are the lessons my girl Willow continues to teach me:

Love out loud every day

Willow has never been stingy with her affection.  Whether it’s a dramatic tail-wagging greeting at the door, a paw asking to be petted, or assuming her role as my faithful office mate, she is always letting me know I’m loved.

So now more than ever, I’ve been completely focused on making Willow as happy and comfortable as possible. She gets extra snuggles, home-cooked, nutritionally balanced meals, doggy massages, and daily strolls to her favorite spots when she has the energy.

It’s Willow’s birthday soon, and our family has been talking about making this one a “celebration”. But then it occurred to me: why aren’t we more like our furry friends who make their “people” feel special everyday...just because they are? Why do we wait until the latest possible moment to shower our loved ones with the attention and affection we know they deserve?

We often just don’t realize that we’re not showing the full extent of our love. It’s not until we’re reminded of the fragility of life that we start grabbing onto it with both hands.

So consider this your reminder: don’t hold back from making someone feel adored, cared for, and appreciated.  Take every moment to express your love at its highest level. Start today!

Listen to your body and then allow yourself to be flexible

Willow has always been the energizer doggy. She would romp non-stop with Harley (who passed away in 2003), and now our youngest pup, Jaxon, absolutely worships the grass she walks on. They’ve been together all of Jaxon’s life...wrestling, swimming, rolling around in the dirt, tearing around the backyard chasing each other at breakneck speed.

But nowadays, Willow doesn’t play exactly the way she used to play. Her body’s telling her it’s time to slow down, and she hears its call.  She doesn’t run with me anymore, but loves our long and leisurely walks down by the creek. She’s more subdued and calm but still continues to enjoy her favorite parts of life, just differently.  She is perfectly content to sit on our front stoop watching her little world pass by.

We all have days when we’re exhausted, sore, or needing something different than what we had planned, but we ignore the way we feel, and put more strain on ourselves as a result. Instead, we must pay attention to the messages our bodies are sending us.  There is a reason they are speaking to us – take the time to listen in deeply.  What you discover may surprise you.

Be grateful for the now

I know this is a tall order, and it is a tough one for me, but try to let go of the anxiety about tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.  Instead, savor every moment you have right now.

Willow is still here, and I’m doing my best to replace my sadness with gratitude and focus on the now: the now when we can still enjoy walks in the woods (even at a slower pace). The now when she still chases squirrels. The now when she eats her food with gusto and looks at me for more even after gobbling up the biggest bowl.  The now where just being together is a cherished gift.

When something painful is happening to someone you love, it forces you to put things into perspective. You reflect on the impact they’ve had on your life, and how it will feel to continue on without them.  Instead of sinking into sorrow about losing someone special, focus your energy on appreciating all you’ve had the chance to experience.

Sometimes, the most generous, loving thing you can do is let life happen according to its own plans.

Does my heart ache whenever I imagine our family without Willow? Of course. But do I regret our decision?  Not even for a moment.  That gorgeous girl with four legs and a bright pink collar has an amazing life where she’s loved and gives love every waking moment.  And with each day, my unexpected teacher nourishes my life and helps me understand what truly matters.

Question of the day: What lessons have your four-legged family members taught you? Share your experiences & stories below.


  • Beverly Rudy says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Elise. I have two goldens and my lovely Lucy is 13 and a half and failing — she is still bright and alert but having great trouble with her hind legs and getting up and down. Your story will help me deal with the inevitable when it comes. In the meantime I will enjoy her kisses and wags.

    • Elise says:

      Another two Golden household! They are the best. Oh, I know how painful it is to watch your Lucy as gets up and down. Willow also has trouble with her hips:(. I have been giving her glucosamine and fish oil. It seems to help her.
      Enjoy the kisses and wags from your two furry kids.

  • Jennifer says:

    I just read your blog and wanted to smile and shed a little tear at the same time! This is so true, our animals are often far better “people” than we are! Live and learn, these are some great points you’ve raised. Thank you, like always, for making me stop and think.

    • Elise says:

      Thank you, as always, for sharing your insights. My dogs are definitely recognized like “people” in our house who can do no harm:). Glad you took the time to reflect on the valuable lessons we learn from our furry family members.

  • Helene says:

    Elise–I have tears in my eyes reading this. So beautifully put. How true it is that we can learn so much from our unassuming, unconditionally loving pets. Thank you for sharing this…it really helps put so much of life in proper perspective.

    • Elise says:

      I am so glad that this post resonated with you. I love that you call our loving pets “unassuming”. What a great way to describe our four-legged friends who put very little demands on us…except to be loved. Thank you for your insights!

  • Christine says:

    What a beautiful post Elise; So eloquently and beautifully written and yes, it struck a cord with me too. I often get caught up in my work which nourishes me…and balancing it all with my two young daughters and my family. Thank you for making me slow down…even for just a minute.

    • Elise says:

      Thank you for your comments. You are fortunate to have work that nourishes you, but I understand the challenges of balancing family with that work. I am glad you were reminded to slow down…it is definitely a tough one to remember!

  • Gail says:

    I couldn’t read through your post without tears welling up in my eyes. I can’t imagine waking up without my little girl by my bedside, rolling on her back when I get up out of bed, to receive her daily morning rub. Your words were beautifully written. We all need to appreciate even the little moments in life. Thanks for sharing.

    • Elise says:

      It sounds like you appreciate the little moments, like giving your little girl a belly rub first thing in the morning. I am glad this post resonated with you. It is really incredible the amount of love we feel from our animals…and the amount we all have to give to them. Thanks so much for sharing.
      Give your pup an extra massage from me.

  • Oh Elise, I am so sorry to hear about Willow. I have a 6 pound poodle also named Willow. She has taught me so many lessons. She was born sickly and almost didn’t make it. When she was little, I was playing throw and catch with her and the ball kept hitting her in the face. Turns out she is blind in 1 eye. When I worked 9-5, I used to drag little Willow for the morning walk. Poor dog got dragged every morning because I was in a hurry. She wanted to sniff everything and play. When I left my job, Willow helped me slow down and walk at a leisurely pace.
    My other dog, Isabella, has pretty bad epilepsy. Both girls are so happy, pure love and grateful for the now. They have both taught me to slow down and enjoy the moment! xoxo

    • Elise says:

      How funny that you also have a Willow…although yours is about 60 pounds lighter:). How lucky for you, WIllow and Isabella that you all are able to slow down and savor the moment. That is a particularly hard thing for most of us to do in the “busy” culture we live in today. Thanks for sharing such a major life lesson with us!

  • Kathy Chelst says:

    Elise you have written so eloquently and your article really touched my heart. You have been wonderful to Willow for giving her a quality of life and the dignity she so deserves. Dogs truly teach us to love deeply and unconditionally.

    • Elise says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I agree with you that dogs truly teach us to love deeply and unconditionally. As I wrote, I have learned to LOVE OUT LOUD today. It is really amazing that we learn these huge life lessons from our lovable animals and reassuring to hear how many people are touched in a big way by their four-legged family members

  • Lynn says:

    Elise, When I received your email blog , the tears rolled down my face as my 13 year old lab Sophie was just diagnosed with cancer yesterday. I have spent the last day researching Holistic/ Alternative options. She is having an ultrasound and possible biopsy Monday. I would love to know more about the Nutritionally balanced home cooked meals you feed Willow as well as the massage. I am grateful for any information you may think would be helpful. I wish you, your family and Willow ease in this journey, she is clearly very lucky to have you as you are lucky to have her.

    • Elise says:

      Oh, Lynn. I am sending love, light and positive energy for you and Sophie on Monday. I sent you an email with some specific information on alternative therapies and a list of books that have helped me on this journey. I am thinking of you and and your family.

  • Shannon says:

    Wonderful story! I lost my dog to cancer just five months ago. I adopted her when she was six-years-old, and we had only four years together, but she was my best friend and traveling companion. She lifted my spirits every day, and it was so, so hard to let her go, but now her memory also lifts my spirits. I miss her something awful, but am so thankful for the times we had together.

    • Elise says:

      I am so sorry to hear about your loss but how amazing that you adopted your four-legged girl and created an incredible bond together. Thanks so much for sharing here.

  • Colette says:

    Thank you Elise for sharing such a lovely and personal story. Willow sounds wonderful.

  • Beverly Rosenstein says:

    I found myself in tears as I was reading your story. The main lesson one can learn is gratitude, and you have demonstrated this in everything you do. You are wise beyond your years, Elise. I lost my Roxxie to cancer, and the hardest part was letting go. That is a lesson we all must dig deep for and emerge in the light. A love from an animal is unconditional and precious. Enjoy your last moments with Willow as you have with snuggles and extra love. Give her a snuggle from me please. Thank you for this poignant account of love and gratitude.

    • Elise says:

      Yes, GRATITUDE! It sounds like you learned so many valuable life lessons from your girl, Roxxie.
      Much love and deep appreciation for your insights that are always inspirational.

  • Amy Reyer says:

    Elise, I’m so deeply touched by this. You know we lost our beloved Elsie to cancer, and also made the difficult decision not to treat her cancer for the same reasons. We cherished every minute with her and she is still deeply a part of our family. I feel her presence all the time. As I sit here and write at my desk, I can feel her spirit with me, snoozing under my desk:) Thank you for sharing your story and Willow with all of us! Much love to all of you!

    • Elise says:

      I am so sorry about your beloved Elsie but love that you were able to cherish every minute with her. What a powerful relationship that you are able to feel her presence and spirit even though she is physically gone. And, I am so happy to hear that you also had a faithful office mate under the desk…my girl is with me now:).
      Thank you for sharing.

  • Dee says:

    My heart is with you. I’ve lost several cats to cancer (and kidney disease) over the last several years. I learned many of the same lessons you did. I learned to cherish every minute with them. I learned to make it about them, not me. I learned to cry with abandon. I learned that time moves too quickly sometimes. And I learned that love doesn’t stop with death.

  • Elise:

    Since the day I read this post, I’ve been thinking of you and the lessons from Willow. My daughter is 13. (We don’t have a dog just now, but we wish we did.)

    My attention and affections to are focused on her now. I’s not an easy time in her life. I’ve turned my attention to giving my daughter a lot of wholesome food, as well as peacefulness and lots and lots of listening and independence time too.

    I hope it’s the right mix – I keep tweaking as our time together evolves (and she gets older and older).

    It’s a good time to work on being in the Now. Eckhardt Tolle’s great book, The Power of Now, has been very useful and instructive to both of us – thank goodness. It’s an excellent reducer of what seems so prevalent – stress and worry about the past and future – both of which we can do nothing about!!.

    Thank you for this great post. Please keep us posted on Willow. Now that you’ve told us about her, we must know!!!


  • Betsy says:

    My dog Scout was diagnosed w hemangiosarcoma 3 weeks ago. We r not doing Chemo but taking Chinese herbs.
    What cancer does Willow have

  • Betsy says:

    Hello Elise,
    I know your sister Tracey and she told me to check out your site because I had told her about Scout.
    Scout has taught me sooo many lessons. I rescued him almost 8 years ago and it seems like yesterday. From the minute I got him, I said with out fear, that night when we went to bed, Scout I love you. It kind of shocked me, after our first day together when he barfed in my car driving home and had diarrhea in the yard and followed me everywhere, and fell asleep with his snout on my foot so he would know if I moved. He trusted and loved me, I felt it before i even realized it in my mind, my heart just knew it.
    He is now very sick, he had an emergency spleenectomey 3 weeks ago, it turned out to be a hemangiosarcoma. We are giving him chines herbs called I’m Yunity, which are chines turkey tail mushrooms. He is eating playing happy and back to normal. I look at him and think how is this happening to such a happy dog. He is so happy because he feels better then before surgery, and he has no idea what is happening, he is living in the NOW, the Present. Wow, he doesn’t know, so why am I not living in the present, the Now. Oh what a teacher he is. I am loving him tons and enjoying every moment he is with me.

  • Pete says:

    I don’t have a dog story; it’s been many years since I lost my yellow lab, Peaches. But your story, hits the mark on a key part of my life right now. I have had a hard time putting it together with my girlfriend, who is a true jewel of a woman. Somehow I manage to get stuck in what should be or what the plan was, or the life I had planned on living. This leads me to sabotage our relationship on a consistent basis, ignoring the basic fact of the deep love between us. So, no, I did not love out loud every day, and was not grateful for the good things that were here now. The stress I have caused with our ongoing breakups has affected both of us physically and of course, mentally. Frankly, I am not sure how to live this loving life that is possible with her, if she will even talk to me again. But your story is making me realize that I need to begin now.

  • Samantha Davies says:

    Am sitting here in my garden sobbing with my best friend Cocoa who has been in our lives for 11 1/2 years. She was diagnoised with cancer (i just hate that word) last june.She’s been such a wonderful dog and now i don’t know how i will cope without her.But now the time has come to relieve her of her pain.I will so miss her greeting me when i return home from work. And sitting beside me and giving us lots of kisses’s.My heart is breaking.My dog my best friend.Cocoa x.

  • Shayna Fastovsky says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I have 2 west highland terriers (a girl and a boy). My boy, Bryce had a soft tissue sarcoma removed from his leg last summer. I opted for radiation therapy on the spot instead of amputation. The treatments went smoothly and we only had 2 weeks of recovery hell. Well last month I went for his checkup and the cancer has spread to his lungs. He has almost 10 masses in them. He was given a few months to live. I took him to a holistic vet and we have changed his diet, put him on supplements, acupuncture and ozone therapy. Every day is a struggle for me. I am trying so hard to enjoy every last moment I have with him but it’s just so hard to think about my life without him right now. This article helped motivate me to try harder. I’ve been trying to give him everything he could ever want but watching his body slowly shut down is miserable. Good Luck with Willow and Thanks again.

  • Christine says:

    Good morning everyone,
    Just finished reading all the posts that started with Elsie. They are beautiful stories and recollections of memories shared by our little furry friends as well as humans. I too, have lost a loved one to cancer only it was my mother. Almost a year to the day. When she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer she was given 6 months to a year to live. I had a business that I eventually let go to take full time care of her. I took her to all her dr appointments, chemo therapy, grocery shopping, bank, post office, whatever she needed or wanted to do. We were fortunate enough to love her deeply for a full five years. She had a huge heart that wanted to live on. Oh, how I loved her and cherish all those years of care and comfort. She was truly appreciative of all my love and care over the years. She told me several days before she passed that “you took the best care of me”. I will never forget those words, I will remember till my dying days. I was so happy to have had the opportunity to share that time with my mother and give her the best possible care I could. She had a very hard life, going through this journey by herself, no one to help her. She raised three children all three under 24 months. We were all in diapers at the same time. She walked this road alone….what a journey! She passed peacefully in her own bed, at home, which is what she desired.
    My mother had a rescue dog named Gracie. She is a toy fox terrier around 15 years old. I happily inherited her. When my mother died Gracie was beside herself. She climbed up on her bed put her nose right up to my mothers mouth which was opened slightly, most likely from her last breath. Gracie realized she was not breathing and laid next to her body. while we waited for the funeral home to pick my mother up I too, laid down right next to my mother, sobbing uncontrollably. When the man came to pick her body up I grabbed Gracie and pulled her away she made peculiar sounds and kept turning her head so as to get one last glimpse of her mommy. The lady that rescued her from despair. It was very sad to see my mothers body being removed and to hold her baby girl trying to console her and myself at the same time. Once her body had been removed, bed was empty with exception of a depressed portion of mattress where my mother had laid. Gracie jumped up on the bed and going around in circles rested her body in the crevice of the mattress. She laid there for hours until it was time to go. I brought Gracie home with me she has joined our other two little girls, both Yorkshire terriers. They knew Gracie very well as she would stay with them while my mother was in and out of the hospital over the years. They accepted her with open paws. To this day, almost one year later, Gracie is doing very well. She lays by the fire propped up by a doggie bed, eats homemade delicious meals, goes for walks and plays beautifully with the other girls. Sometimes I think she thinks, she died and went to heaven. I’m reminded daily of my mother with Gracie around, for that, I am eternally grateful. I miss my mother dearly, I love Gracie dearly and cherish all the time I have with her too!

  • Julie says:

    I have just read your blog and I too am a woman surrounded by a household of men. A husband , 2 boys and my very large but sweetheart American Bulldog , Koda. We have just recently found out that out beloved 7 yr old furry baby has a tumor in his nasal cavity and only given months to live. The news brought me to my knees and for 3 days straight I found myself crying because I cannot picture our lives without him. We always knew that one day we would be without him but not like this, he was always his normal self up until he had a bloody nose and after an emergency vet visit and a 2 hour drive to the nearest hospital to do an MRI and rhinoscopy we were delivered the devastating news. Koda is home now and I find myself just staring at him and wondering was there something that I missed in his daily life that could have pointed towards it but then I realize that there was no way I could have known because he never showed any signs. So I have become determined to make this time special, we are not going to subject him to any more operations or radiation therapy but simply change his diet and love him unconditionally until his day comes (which I’m hoping is not too soon). So as you said we will cherish the walks we take with him, the loud snores at the foot of our bed, the puddles of water he leaves behind after drinking and the bear size muddy foot prints he leaves after coming in from outside. Thank you for your post, it has made this situation with my dog a little easier to deal with.

    • Julie, I am so sorry to hear the news about Koda. You are such a caring and thoughtful dog mommy, and Koda is lucky to be a part of your family. It breaks my heart every time I hear about one of our pups getting this kind of diagnosis. Please don’t beat yourself up. It’s not helpful to you or to Koda. I went through that “what if” stage, too, and it will only detract from your time together. I read something somewhere in my research when my dogs (I had two at the same time with cancer) and it was a suggestion to create a “perfect day” for your dog, whatever that means to him. I did that with Willow, and I felt better that we had the experience of focusing on everything (including all the food) that she loved. I hope that you can spend some quality time as a family with lots of snuggles and muddy foot prints. Sending love and healing energy your way, xo Elise

  • Heather says:

    I went to Google looking for answers. My dog, Licorice, has a pretty unusual cancer. It’s located in or around his thyroid and I”m seeking some sort of guidance for whether to treat it or not. Like Willow, who must now be gone, he is 12 and a half. He’s old for a lab, I know, but he’s my dog-soulmate.

    We’ve been down this road before. Our dog, Cocoa was diagnosed with cancer, but they removed it three years ago and nothing. No return. Happy days!

    But this turn is different. Licorice’s is in an unusual spot, he’s old, he’s clearly slowing down and I think my heart is telling me to let him live his last days, to eat whatever he wants, to go for walks, to lay in the yard and just be happy. I’m not sure I want to put him through surgery. It’s a difficult situation.

    Anyway, I think the surgery option might just be for me more than him. I’m greedy with my time. I want him to live forever. Anyway, thank you for this blog post.

  • Diane Varner says:

    Your thoughts that you left during your difficult time with Willow, are truly a gift for me at this time in my life. I am incredibly grateful – thank you.

  • Chris says:

    This is so beautifully written, and with so much love. I am struggling to remember to find joy every day with my sweet girl that I can, and trying to suppress the dread in my heart and head for the time when cancer will take her away from this world. I have never loved anyone more than my little dog, and the thought of life without her scares me to my very core. But I will keep working on making the number 1 mission in my life to keeping her happy and comfortable. One day she will leave this world, but I pray when she crosses the Rainbow Bridge she will know how very much she was loved and cherished. Oh, how these sweet babies bless our lives, and how it hurts to let them go.

    • Chris, Thank you for sharing here. I feel you and know how much your heart is breaking. I hope that you can spend as much time loving your sweet girl and letting her love you back. These amazing beings have so much to teach and give. Enjoy your precious time together. Sending you lots of love and healing energy.
      xo Elise

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