Dogs help cancer patient cope with disease and treatments

by Helen Neafsey

As soon as the door opened Gracie was up and wagging, the kind of wiggling wag that makes you smile. The three year old Staffordshire, or pit bull, a victim of hurricane Katrina who still goes into a panic during thunder and rain, was joyously greeting her friend Nicole Bruck.

Bruck, who is fighting breast cancer, volunteers regularly at Gracie’s temporary home, the Armonk, NY shelter of Adopt-A-Dog. The visits, according to Bruck, keep her spirits up during chemotherapy – and Gracie is her favorite therapy dog. The two friends, who have both been through plenty of storms, are now healing together.

Nicole, 39, who grew up in Greenwich, was living in London when she was diagnosed in March of 2008. Her mother had suffered from breast cancer and died from the disease at the age of 47. Because of this history, Bruck went for screenings for years while living in Greenwich, but nothing was noted. She continued the screenings when she moved to London to pursue a career in financial journalism. When the disease was detected, the doctors went over the mammograms from the past and found that she had had the cancer since 2005. The radiologists in London who had examined the earlier images had overlooked the disease.

Not wanting any more mistakes, Bruck decided to move back to the US.

“I was diagnosed on March 14 and on March 25 I was on a plane,” she said. She went to Sloan-Kettering Hospital, in New York City, and was scheduled for surgery on April 3 with chief breast surgeon Monica Morrow. Bruck had a bilateral mastectomy, fearing that the cancer, which was in the left breast, may someday show up in the right. Dr. Marrow also found cancer in one of her left lymph nodes.

The surgery hit Bruck hard. “When you wake up from surgery, it is pretty horrific,” she explained. “The pain was just incredible. If someone offered to put you out of your misery, you’d say yes.”

The chemotherapy was not much better.

Bruck started chemo at Stamford Hospital’s Bennet Cancer Center and the side effects for the first doses were the worst. “You come home after chemo and you’re so drugged that you feel the room spinning. You feel like you’re dying, if you weren’t on chemo, you’d be rushing yourself to the hospital,” she said.

During respites between chemotherapies Burck considered volunteering at a dog shelter. Perhaps, she thought, the dogs would help take her mind off the pain and the side effects of the drugs. She had worked at a shelter in North London UK, walking, socializing and sometimes even fostering rescued dogs.

“I enjoyed that work and really got a lot out of it,” she said. “Going through all this, reminded me how great the dogs were: they’re happy, they’re positive they have a very healing energy. They don’t mind if your hair is sticking up, or that you have no hair at all.”

Searching through the Internet, she found Adopt-A-Dog which was only a 30 minute drive from her home. In July she began to volunteer there.
She wasn’t disappointed.

“Cancer and the therapy take over all your life,” she explained, “Every week I go to the hospital for tests, have appointments, do physical therapy. It’s a full time job, all consuming. Then I come here (to the shelter), and I forget all about that. I really do. The chemo has bad side effects and I still have a lot of pain from the surgery. But being with the dogs makes it go away. I forget about the pain, and I have more energy too. I feel better.”

She feels happier too.

Sitting in the comfortable welcoming room at Adopt-A-Dog, with Toby, a shepherd mix who was nudging her with a ball, Nicole smiled at his antics. She laughed out loud when Pac, an energetic yellow lab, jumped into a kiddie swimming pool splashing her with a wave of water. While Bruck has friends, also fighting cancer, who are taking anti-depressants, she finds that for her dogs give her the lift that she needs.

That doesn’t surprise George Berger of The Good Dog Foundation, an organization that has trained dogs to aide the healing process of humans in need for 10 years, and has a motto that says “good dogs are good medicine.”

“We have gone into many hospitals and nursing homes and people brighten as soon as they see the dog,” Berger says. “Not only is it a nice distraction, but there is something, an energy, that makes people get better.”

With Nicole and the shelter dogs, the healing has worked both ways.

Nicole’s work at the shelter has helped the animals greatly. Allyson Halm, the president of Adopt-A-Dog, praised Bruck’s work with the shelter dogs. “She comes so consistently, that the dogs are getting fond of her,” says Halm. “They look forward to her visits. She spends a lot of time with them.”
Kristin Alousia, adoption counselor at Adopt-A-Dog, had been worried about Gracie. She was getting depressed, deteriorating. But, she said, she’s come a long way. Other volunteers taught her tricks to keep her busy, which helped, Alousia says, but Nicole gave her love, the unconditional kind that dogs have, and she has blossomed.

“Whenever anyone comes and has a special liking for a dog, it is good for the dog,” she said.” They are really helping each other out”.

For Nicole, the healing is palpable. She still has a long road ahead, more chemo, more surgery, radiation, and reconstruction. But on those mornings when she wakes up with worries about the cancer, the life she has left in London, and the journey ahead, she reminds herself, “I’m going to see Gracie later and I know everything will be OK.”
©2008 Southern Conn. Newspapers, Inc. Reprinted with Permission

Update on Nicole Bruck, February 2015: Nicole continues to celebrate her recovery and special friendship with Gracie by dedicating her life to Pit Bull Rescue. You can support her work by adopting, volunteering and donating to your local Pit Bull Rescue, or hers, Animals-R-Family, PO Box 2444, Stamford, CT 06906-0444. Nicole’s love for Pit Bulls is contagious. Within one month of meeting her I found myself adopting a Pit Bull! I named him “Happi,” short for Happiness. Happi got me out walking three to five miles a day and helped complete my recovery from radiation fatigue. – Viveca Stone-Berry, Former Patient, Cancer Center of Virginia.

For more information on the health benefits of exercise and walking dogs, please visit:

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