New Year Joy

New Year Joy: “Sit, Stay, Heal, What Dogs can Teach us about Living Well”
by Dr. Renee Alsarraf

When I opened up this holiday present from my friend Joan, a fellow animal lover, nature lover, and artist, I was so intrigued that I put all other books aside. And the reward? A delicious, insightful read into the New Year.

The real-life story focuses on the author, the oncology veterinarian Dr. Renee Alsarraf, who is shocked to find out that she has cancer. A teenage son, her veterinarian husband, and a full hospital practice add to the complexity and stress of her healing journey, which includes surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

To my delight, each chapter is named after a remarkable canine patient of hers, with a few additional pet stories interspersed, including a stray cat that she rescues. A number of the dogs she treats survive their cancer journey against all odds, living far longer than expected. I did a symbolic high-five with each heartwarming story!

I immersed myself in their healing journeys – the relationships between the pets and their very diverse owners – as the author struggles with her own treatments and uncertainties. I chuckled over her descriptions such as her abdominal surgery causing her to walk like her eighty-one-year-old father and his “slightly bent over shuffle.” A very apt description, and one I was acutely aware of after my kidney/ureter surgery. Her determination, will, and resolve despite all the unknowns were also very familiar, even though I had other relationships that mattered equally to me; my husband, our standard poodle, and my sister were paramount, along with very close friends. 

So what about dogs and cancer? I learned that dogs accept treatment, whether surgery, radiation, or chemo drugs far more readily than we humans do. They are not told statistics about how long they may have to live. They live in the moment with a level of trust that we humans can learn from. Their devotion to their owners and human family rivals, and may even surpass, our own. I feel I spent this past week as an admirer of and rooting for Daisy, Bentley, Cosmo, Sasha, Franny, the police dog, Lucky, and each wonderful canine she describes, and, of course, the author.

One story that stood out for me was the description of her family’s beloved boxer Newton, delightfully goofy and “special,” and her constant companion as she goes through the intense side effects of her chemo. When she can barely move from the sofa, she discovers Newton has cancer too and supervises his treatment protocol from afar. “They say a dog is a wonderful companion for anything—I just never thought we’d be going through this particular journey together,” she confesses.  

(Spoiler alert, skip this paragraph) After different chemo treatments, Newton’s quality of life with a very aggressive cancer becomes so diminished that it is time to euthanize him. To be an oncology vet and help families with this very difficult decision is one thing, but to have to examine your own devoted dog, realize that it is his time, and then give him the injections yourself, shows a deeply moving and profound level of compassion, love, and fortitude. The final gift “of dignity” she gives Newton.

Would I recommend this book? Wholeheartedly! It’s not just a book for animal lovers, or for those who are on a healing journey, or who “survive” a cancer diagnosis and treatments, or know someone who did, it describes so marvelously the bond between humans and pets, the veterinarian with her dedicated staff, her family and supportive friends. Beautifully written and superbly edited, I could not put it down. I bet you won’t either.

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