97: Magic

97: Magic

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog


Happiness is a warm puppy.

~Charles M. Schulz

I’m devastated. How can I possibly have breast cancer? I’m only forty-four years old. There’s no history of cancer in my family. I exercise, eat healthy, and pride myself on looking younger than my years. Cancer’s merciless disregard for my proud arguments is frightening. How did I end up being one of the women diagnosed each year in our country with breast cancer? How am I going to face this—the betrayal of my body and my own mortality? How am I going to face the next five minutes, knowing—and not knowing—what’s next?

Add to that this crazy new puppy. What a maniac! I’m not even sure I like him. I hear him running in and out of the doggy door. Ugh. Soon he’ll be back in here running in circles. It’s what we call “puppy frenzy.” He smiles, puts his head down and his bottom up, and positions himself to catapult around the room. I’m lying on the couch in absolute despondency as he circles the room. Suddenly, he jumps on my chest and uses my body to launch himself halfway across the room. Tail high and proud, he lands and looks for praise. All I can say is, “Chaco! For pity sake, settle down!” He’s heartbroken that I don’t appreciate his antics and goes to his bed. His sigh fills the room as he rolls over and accepts my rejection.

I learn that my cancer is early stage and small, but very aggressive. As such, the treatment will also be aggressive. First, a lumpectomy followed by four rounds of chemotherapy, and then six weeks of radiation therapy. I learn new words like Adriamycin, Cytoxan, in situ, HERC2 gene, injection port, sentinel node dissection, and nuclear injection. I come to understand the importance of brain scans, bone scans, organ scans, and blood tests. I become familiar with odds like ninety-eight percent recovery, five-year survival rates, and age demographics identifying me as a young “victim.” I also learn that I’m young enough to take aggressive therapy and fight this thing successfully. I get numerous opinions in an attempt to assuage my fears. I’m looking for someone to tell me that there was some kind of mistake in my diagnosis. I find out later that those thoughts are normal. What’s normal, I ask? Through it all, the fear is still there and the path is uncertain, but one thing is clear: my life is about to change—dramatically. And then there’s the puppy.

I tell my husband that there is no way we can keep this dog. He’s unruly, wild, and destructive. After all, Chaco is an English Cocker Spaniel bred for field work. And he’s just plan nuts! We have to call the breeder and see if he will take the puppy back. My cousin offers to keep Chaco during the difficult days of my therapy. She has a big yard and two kids. Chaco would have fun. I think about the options and as my therapy starts, I also forget about the options as I become immersed in doctors, surgeries, medications, and my battle for survival. Chaco stays and slowly wins my heart.

Make no mistake, chemo is hell and I had a terrible time. When the chemo entered my system to kill the cancer cells, it killed a lot of other cells along the way. The pain was physical, emotional, intellectual, and as my hair fell out, it was visual. I slept and sometimes fell into a state of absolute despair. I’d lie in bed and question everything. I was pitiful, angry, tired, and didn’t want to deal with anything. But then there was Chaco—a constant reminder of the wonders of life.

Chaco is blessed with the knowledge that the world is magic. His heart overflows with unconditional love. I’d reject him and he kept coming back—determined to help me fight. It’s almost as though he’d look at me and say, “Get up. Don’t give in. Let’s go for a walk.” He’d turn his head and look at me in a way that asked, “Wanna play?” Sometimes he’d look at me with such love that I felt beautiful, again. And in his rare, quiet moments, he’d snuggle so close to me that I’d almost fall off the bed. I’d smile down at his sweet face and hug him closer.

It’s been seven years. Statistically, I have reached the “free zone”—the cancer-free zone. I still think about it. The stalker in my past sometimes visits my dreams, even today. It was a hell of a fight and I’ve often thought that Chaco was sent to me as a guide through the battlefield. His steadfast love, spirit, and energy have filled my life in a way that’s hard to describe. Oh, he still has his “puppy frenzy” moments, but they are fewer and shorter. I laugh as he runs around the house and quickly goes to lie down—pooped from the exertion, not my rejection. He still looks at me with longing when he wants to hit the trail or chase birds, but those walks are no longer the marathons of his youth, or mine. We’ve come a long way together. Oh, he still thinks the world is magic, and through him, so do I.

~Carla Andrews-O’Hara

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