When the Veterinary Oncologist Gets Cancer

Sit, Stay, Heal: What Dogs Can Teach Us About Living Well.


Veterinary cancer specialist Renee Alsarraf, DVM, has spent decades donning protective gear when administering chemotherapy drugs to her canine cancer patients because the medications have so many toxic effects: nausea, rashes, hair loss, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, cardiac problems, and perhaps fertility difficulties, among other issues. Now diagnosed with cancer herself, Dr. Alsarraf is the one in the room left exposed as medical staff gather around her, all of them hidden in gloves, gowns, goggles, and face shields as they inject her with the cell-killing chemo medications. It is perhaps the starkest example in Sit, Stay, Heal that the shoe has shifted to the other foot.

Against the backdrop of this grim cosmic irony, Dr. Alsarraf gives the reader an intimate view of the sometimes staggering emotional and physical toll of her journey through diagnosis and treatment, continuing to care for dogs who have cancer as she struggles along and tending to her family as best she can. For all that, there’s a fair amount of lighthearted humor in her tale — and many stirring stories for dog lovers.

Yes, there are the scary parts, like wondering whether she’ll get to see her teenage son grow up and marry, perhaps making her a grandmother. And there are the sad parts, like watching the strain on her husband’s face as he tries to hold down the fort both on the home front and professionally. There are also the parts that are scary and sad at the same time. A friend of hers found to have cancer within months of her own diagnosis ends up dying. But the parade of canine patients and their people tempers the sadness and breaks wide open a touching and affirming view of humanity.

© Aileen Boylek
Renee Alsarraf, DVM, with her own dog, Newton.

Dogs, dogs, dogs!

When the effects of the chemotherapy treatments don’t tie Dr. Alsarraf to her bed or couch to watch Columbo reruns on the DVR, she meets cancer patients like a panting and eager 11-year-old cocker spaniel named Elsa, who comes to her office in a blue princess gown that the vet contrasts against the yoga pants and hoodie she wears to her own chemotherapy sessions. There’s also 7-year-old Gus, a golden retriever who has absolutely no signs of cancer but whose “mother” has brought him in because a psychic advised her to. (Sure enough, Gus turns out to have cancer in the form of lymphoma.)

And, among a number of others, there’s Franny the bloodhound, a K-9 working dog who gains so much weight during her treatment that when she steps on the scale, the veterinary team puts on the Commodores’ She’s a Brick House, with the volume turned up. Franny has a poor prognosis but defies the odds by going on to live for years, accomplishing such feats as tracking down a hit-and-run driver who killed a woman while she was waiting for a bus and finding a child who wandered off and couldn’t be located by her family or the local police. Dr. Alsarraf doesn’t say it, but by saving the dog’s life (and enriching the life of the police officer who works with and loves her), she has helped save people’s lives.

There’s Dr. Alsarraf’s own dog, too, who has grown up with her son. Do have the tissues handy for that one.

Through it all, the doctor’s tail-wagging patients continually instill in her the lesson of living in the moment rather than worrying about the what-ifs. It’s as though she has her own set of canine yogis teaching her the gratitude of now. They also don’t judge her for her own weight gain from the chemo treatments or her thinning, straggly hair — she feels whole when she is with them. She learns from them, too, what dogs know instinctively, which is that we are never really in control, no matter how much we think we are.

Sit, Stay, Heal is a good read for people who love dogs, and a must read for dog lovers who have been up against a life-threatening experience—or care about someone who has. You’ll like the storyteller. She never wavered from her third grade dream of becoming a vet, and she hugs her human clients when she senses they need it, even becoming friends with some of them. She gets people and dogs alike.



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