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Patient and pet to the rescue


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Patient and pet to the rescue


October 31, 2006

Nearly 300 people on Long Island alone are diagnosed with some form of cancer every week. Each one has a family and friends coping with the disease along with them. Newsday staff writer Lauren Terrazzano was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago, at 36. She's written about her experiences occasionally, but today begins her new column "Life, With Cancer." The columns are not "how-to's," though they sometimes will offer resources and insights from her own experiences.

I knew I was in love the first time I saw him. He barely had any hair and walked with a slight limp. When I looked into his brown eyes, he acted as if he wanted to crawl under a table. I always seem to go for the complicated ones.

The workers at the New York City animal shelter said he was found scrawny and scared, wandering the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.

I wasn't looking for a dog. I am 38, newly married and sufficiently scarred from a seemingly endless tango with a disease that has led me through chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, a brief remission, more surgery, two more rounds of radiation and more chemotherapy. All in 25 months.

But while people credit me with rescuing him, a few sage observers know it was really the other way around.

In fact, so intrigued are cancer researchers by the role of pets in patients' lives, the National Institutes of Health is studying whether dogs have any impact on alleviating pain and anxiety during treatment. It has long been known that having a pet is therapeutic on a number of levels, for everyone from autistic children to the elderly. And even if adoption isn't an option, most shelters have volunteer programs that allow people to be part of an animal's life.

Still, the dog came with his own baggage. His teeth were bad, his ears were infected, he was matted with tar and oil, and he had a bad cough. Someone theorized that he had been living under cars or big trucks.

Nobody could guess what breed he was, this particular dog.

The day I met him, I was emerging from radiation treatments at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on East 67th Street. I began my walk, more a shuffle of an old woman, up First Avenue.

When I arrived at the Center for Animal Care and Control on 110th Street in Manhattan, there he was. His hair was shaved down to rid it of the tangles. I know what it's like to be bald too, I thought. My hair finally grew back last year, dark and curly. His would grow back white and curly. We shared that same puzzled look. "How did I get here?"

There's an unexplainable alchemy that makes people and things click at certain moments, especially during challenging times. My bond with the little white dog was instant, intuitive and unquestionable.

"I found Bartufalo," I gushed into the cell phone, calling my husband at work. The dog's name originated from a vacation we once took hiking in Italy. We met an old man picking walnuts who had a little white dog named Bartufalo.

My husband was preoccupied and on deadline with a big story, so I could have told him I had just converted us to Scientology or booked us on the Queen Mary. He said to do what I wanted.

I marched downstairs to the shelter supervisor and told her I had to have this dog. Now. When you are facing a life-threatening illness, living in the moment is one of the necessary skills you learn. We had to wait 24 hours, according to shelter rules.

The next morning my husband was having second thoughts. "You're in treatment. Maybe it's not such a good time," he said. With cancer, I thought, it's never a good time.

Still, I dragged him up to the shelter that afternoon. Two hours later Bartufalo was ours.

Since he's been with us, there have been some ups and downs. Because he was homeless, he acts as if every meal will be his last. Half-rotted apples or pretzels he finds in the park. He also likes paper towels and tissues. I often think we wound up with the four-legged version of the kid who ate crayons in grammar school.

There are days when I don't feel like walking him, when I am tired from treatment, when the rain is pounding on the pavement. But he looks at me and somehow gets me, or my husband, out there. Responsibility is good, I think to myself.

And sometimes, I think, it's just nice to be a girl in Central Park with her dog.

Send correspondence and ideas to lauren.terrazzano@ newsday.com

Go to newsday.com for more stories by Lauren Terrazzano about

her experiences with cancer.

Where to go ...

If you'd like to adopt an animal or volunteer at a shelter, contact the North Shore Animal League in Port Washington at nsalamerica.org or call 516-883-7575. In New York City, contact the Center for Animal Care and Control at nycacc.org or at 212-788-4000; it has locations in all five boroughs.

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