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Canine cancer survivor is pet therapist helping kids with cancer

Photo: companion animals

Just four months

into her new pet therapy duties, however, Dani was to experience what these youngsters already knew all too well -- cancer


From the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center media release:

Dani is no ordinary dog. It's not just the Santa suit or reindeer antlers that set this beagle apart -- she is a cancer survivor and an inspiration to the young patients in the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she's worked as a therapy dog since June 1997.

Dani began her tenure at the center when her owner, Lauri Seamark, joined the staff as a child-life specialist. Dani's gentle, easy-going personality made her the perfect dog for the job, waiting patiently as young chemotherapy patients brushed her fur, painted her toenails and dressed her in various outfits. Just four months into her new duties, however, Dani was to experience what these youngsters already knew all too well -- cancer.

In October 1997, Lauri discovered a large lump on Dani's right back leg during a bath prior to her weekly visit to the center. After consultation with her veterinarian, Lauri scheduled Dani for surgery to remove the tumor, a mastocytoma that proved to be malignant. Subsequently, Dani embarked on a year of oral chemotherapy.

Ironically, Dani's medications -- leukoran and predisone -- are the same as those prescribed for children with leukemia and produced similar side effects. Just like the youngsters she visited, Dani experienced increased hunger and weight gain. Her appointments to the vet began with the routine blood draws the children knew so well. She had to avoid the park, where she might pick up "doggie diseases."

"The children began to identify with Dani, and they asked all sorts of questions," said Lauri. "One girl asked me if Dani was scared when she had her tumor removed. I knew she was really asking for herself, to know if it was okay for her to be scared too."

With Lauri's skillful handling, Dani became a model patient for every emotion the children experienced. The dog's "feelings" of fear, anger or excitement came to mirror their own, explained Lauri, "It really helped the kids to process their own emotions."

Lauri recalled a ride in the elevator with Dani and a child undergoing treatment at the center. Someone entered the elevator, exclaiming, "What a fat dog!" The child spoke up in Dani's defense: "You shouldn't say something like that if you don't know someone's situation!"

It was a gratifying experience for Lauri, who knew the child probably wouldn't have felt comfortable speaking up for herself, but for Dani it was a different story. The beagle has had a similar effect on hospital staff and adults at the outpatient treatment facility. In fact, the center's nursing staff presented Dani with an award for "Boosting Morale" (plus a rawhide wreath) this December. The Santa suit she wore for the occasion was a gift from one of the young patients.

Most encouraging -- for Lauri and Dani's many friends -- is that she completed her chemotherapy Nov. 18, and her prognosis is excellent. The day after her final treatment, Dani was the guest of honor at a party hosted by staff and patients replete with party hats and horns, a dog-bone-shaped cake and variety of gifts. "If she smelled food inside the package, she just shredded the paper -- the kids really got a kick out of that," remembered Lauri.

For both Lauri and Dani, the last year has been filled with trials and tribulations as well as triumphs.

"At first, I felt the whole situation was so unfair," said Lauri. "It was hard on me because it seemed like my whole life was about cancer, at work and at home. But then I realized there was a positive side, and that so many people empathized with Dani."

Dani's saga can also be an inspiration to dog owners who may face a similar crisis with their pet's health, Lauri added. "It's good for them to know there can be happy endings."

With chemo behind her, Dani is back to being a normal beagle -- her energy level is up and she's in good spirits. Lauri has just one new observation: "Dani is probably the most spoiled dog in the world!" But no one would argue the fact that Dani is a dog worth spoiling.


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