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.