CancerCare’s Pet Assistance & Wellness (PAW) Program Q&A with Dr. Fumiko Chino

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CancerCare’s Pet Assistance & Wellness (PAW) Program addresses the distinct needs of people with cancer who share their home with a cat or dog. Dr. Fumiko Chino, a treating radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is part of our PAW Program panel of experts who are here to answer questions people undergoing cancer treatment may have regarding the challenges of keeping their pets at home.

We’re so grateful to have you share your expertise for our Pet Assistance & Wellness (PAW) program! How did you first learn about our PAW Program and what motivated you to join our panel of experts?
CancerCare is an incredible resource for my patients, so I was familiar with it through my own work with financial toxicity. I had written a short narrative medicine piece, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, about the benefit that my cat, Franklin, provided my husband, Andrew, and me as Andrew was diagnosed and died from cancer and also how Franklin continued to comfort me as a grieving widow. The article was the result of an offhand conversation about the power of pets with CancerCare CEO Patricia Goldsmith. When the Advisory Board for the PAW Program was coming online, it felt like a natural fit that I would join it, given my passion for both the help people with cancer need and for the supportive care that animals give you.

What advice would you give to someone undergoing cancer treatment who has concerns about being able to continue caring for their pet or is on the fence about adopting a pet?
The PAW Program has a lot of resources and you can enlist the help of your friends and family, too. I would never begrudge anyone for saying “I need extra help for a particular task,” “I need help taking my cat to the vet,” or “I’m going out of town for a clinical trial, can you dog sit?” I feel like knowing you can ask for assistance and that people are happy to assist are important, but it’s also key to realize that there are real health benefits to having an animal. There are clear benefits in terms of stress, anxiety and actual pain reduction, in certain cases. It can actually be a health asset for you to have a pet.

When I talk to my patients who are dealing with cancer alone, it’s really hard. It can be a black hole and an animal can radiate some love, as well as provide some light and literally some physical warmth. I cannot underestimate how much joy my pet has given me as a widow and also as a struggling medical student.

The transition of a new pet to a space can be difficult, so maybe during active, aggressive cancer treatment is not the time to pick up a brand-new kitten, but I think there are a lot of lasting benefits from owning an animal and especially for people with chronic diseases, like cancer.

What are some frequent questions you receive from pet owners undergoing radiation therapy and how do you typically advise them?
Mostly pet owners are worried that their treatment is going to affect their animal and for the vast majority of cases, the answer is that it won’t. For example, with respect to treatment with external radiation, which is the outpatient treatment, it’s not going to leave you radioactive, it’s not going to put you, your family or animals at risk. And that’s really the reassurance that people want. There are incredibly rare cases where you may be low-grade radioactive if you have an implant, but those instances are very specific and isolated and there are precautions given to the patients who have them. But the majority of the time, people can have an animal and it gives them the opportunity to be more active. A pet is great, not only to have support for napping – I don’t know any animal who doesn’t like to nap! – but also to encourage activities like walking around the neighborhood, at a leisurely pace, which can be an opportunity to get fresh air and light exercise, which can make a huge difference in terms of overall energy, attitude and depression symptoms.

People also ask if an animal is a risk to themselves when they’re undergoing cancer treatment, and, in general, the answer is no. There are certain circumstances if you have a dog who is a biter or a cat who is a scratcher for which you’ll want to take reasonable precautions, like keeping nails trimmed, etc. But, in general, there are not a lot of additional risks from owning a pet and that is always a joy to tell people because I know how much benefit cats and dogs are to my patients. They are that extra supportive layer.

With pet owners in mind, what are some ways family and friends can help support their loved ones during and after their cancer treatment?
I think it all depends on your need. One of the most common things to say to someone who has cancer is, “just let me know what I can do to help,” which is very hard, because it puts the onus on the patient, who should be focusing on other things, to make a list of things for you to do. It’s better for friends and family members to say specific things, like “Can I take your dog for a walk if you’re feeling tired?” or “I see that you just had a major surgery, do you want me to temporarily keep your cat at my house?” Really specific things as opposed to “Let me know what I can do.” The difference is putting the labor of trying to figure out all these things on the patient, versus you being in charge of the logistics.

I also know from personal experience, there is real benefit and comfort to be provided to patients who are at the end of their life from animals. There are strict rules in terms of which animals are allowed in the hospital. However, I think for patients who may be at the end of life who are transferred to a hospice facility that allows animal visits, or getting people home, so that they can potentially pass their final days in their own beds, with their animals, there are such incredible therapeutic benefits to that, for both patients and their families. For families thinking, how do I support my loved ones, thinking about how to get them home or to a hospice facility where they can have their loved ones with them can make a huge difference.

Can you tell us a little about your cat, Franklin, and how he came into your life? How has he supported you during some of the more challenging times in your life?
I had never wanted to own a cat at all. I was never really an animal person. When I met my husband, Andrew, I knew eventually we were going to get a cat, he was definitely a cat person. I knew that was in my future. I didn’t quite know when, but as Andrew was getting sicker, I realized that having an animal would provide him some joy at the end of his life. On the last day when Andrew felt well enough to leave the house, outside of going to a doctor’s appointment, that’s when we adopted Franklin. Franklin was with us for the last couple of months of my husband’s life. Franklin provided a lot of joy to him and they would play and nap together. Franklin has an incredibly loud purr, which was soothing to my husband, as he had a lot of symptoms. Franklin was that extra fuzzy layer of support that really helped my husband at the end of his life. After Andrew died, Franklin was the only living thing in the house for a while. It was my cat and me. And it made me live, for lack of a better term. It made me leave the house – I had to go get cat food. It made me stick to a schedule – I had to feed him and change his litter box. It made me not just wallow (and I’m not going to lie, I did some wallowing), but it also kept me to a semi-formal schedule of realizing that there was this other small being who was dependent on me to get it together. Ultimately, when I decided to go to medical school, Franklin was there, too, and he was just a constant presence. It’s just lovely to come back from the hospital at 4 a.m. and realize there is a small animal there to greet you and who misses you. It made my life 1,000 percent less lonely. I could deal with my new world better because I had Franklin with me.

To learn more about our Pet Assistance & Wellness (PAW) Program and the assistance we offer for pet owners undergoing cancer treatment, please visit www.cancercare.org/paw or call our toll free Hopeline at 800‑813‑HOPE (4673).

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