Unique pen-pal program provides encouragement by pairing pets and children fighting cancer

Note to Reporters: In honor of Pet Cancer Awareness Month in May, Colorado State University is highlighting a unique program that draws on the stories of its pet cancer patients to encourage children battling the disease. A photo of Pam Payne is available with the news release at www.news.colostate.edu.

Caleb, a 15-year-old patient at Children’s Hospital Colorado, and Pepper, a 7-year-old Pomeranian patient at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, share an unusual story: Both have fought cancer and have lost vision in an eye.

Yet Caleb has been buoyed in his battle against an optic tumor through a pen-pal program called Youth and Pet Survivors, or YAPS, that matches pediatric cancer patients with pets suffering from serious illnesses. Pet owners in the program exchange handwritten letters with young cancer patients, allowing both pet owners and children to share details of medical journeys that often are difficult to discuss.

A bond sealed in handwritten letters

“Even though they know the pet owners are writing the letters, the children talk to the animals. They express themselves on paper in ways they don’t verbally express to family and doctors,” said Anne Gillespie, a nurse who founded YAPS in 2001.

The program connects patients in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Hospital Colorado with animal patients treated at the CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center and the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, among other veterinary hospitals. The owners of 12 dogs and two cats are currently participating.

Children’s Hospital brings in pets to visit with patients for therapeutic benefit in a separate program, but children with compromised immune systems cannot participate. “I still wanted these children to experience the power of the human-animal bond. I thought, ‘Why not create a pen-pal program? And why not find animals with cancer as well?’” Gillespie said.

Mary Lafferty, a veterinary oncology nurse at the CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center, helps recruit animal owners for the program.

Caleb and Pepper

Like other pediatric cancer patients who participate in YAPS, Caleb picked his pen pal from a list of animal profiles. For eight years, Caleb underwent chemotherapy to treat his optic tumor, and he lost vision in one eye.

Few people could understand his struggle, but Pepper’s story is similar: The little dog was diagnosed with a brain tumor at CSU in 2012. The tumor pinched Pepper’s optic nerve, causing facial paralysis and other problems that led to the surgical removal of an eye.

“I use the emotions I felt through Pepper’s experience to respond to Caleb,” said Pam Payne, Pepper’s owner, in describing their pen-pal relationship. “I try to be uplifting by sharing funny stories as often as I can, and I do my best to avoid being down in the mouth. Above all, I am truthful.”

During their treatments, Pepper and Caleb both developed additional tumors. While Caleb’s new tumor was benign, Pepper faced a new battle against plasma cell tumors. Pepper began chemotherapy – a treatment Caleb knew all too well.

“I used to cry all the way home from CSU,” said Payne, who lives in Boulder. “From not knowing what was wrong to the diagnosis and radiation treatment, and then having her eye removed – it was all so stressful. But all of my tears wouldn’t make a drop in a bucket compared to what parents of children with cancer go through.”

Paying it forward

Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Emma, a 14-year-old patient at Children’s Hospital, chose Eli, a Labrador retriever with skeletal system cancer, in June 2013 to help lead her to recovery.

“I saw the YAPS pamphlet and was immediately reminded of the movie ‘Pay it Forward,’” said Aime Chapman of Hayward, Calif., Eli’s owner. “We were financially strapped in paying for Eli’s treatment. We reached out to friends and family through Facebook and raised enough money to pay for Eli’s treatment at CSU. I saw YAPS as an opportunity to pass along love and support to someone else.”

On behalf of her dog, Chapman’s first letter to Emma introduced Eli, shared his background training to be a guide dog, and joked about his mischievous behavior and not taking training seriously enough. Emma, in turn, shared stories about herself, her support system, and her time in and out of the hospital.

“It was eye-opening to hear all that she’d been through,” Chapman said. “Eli hadn’t been through quite as much as she had, but Emma was supportive of him.”

Last year, doctors declared Emma’s cancer in remission. Her letters continued to support Eli as he underwent his second round of radiation treatment and began chemotherapy to eliminate his tumor. Eli remains in high spirits and, through Chapman, regularly updates Emma on his treatments.

Talking about the tough stuff

Katie Maselbas, another YAPS dog owner, said it was easy to describe her Labrador retriever’s personality, but writing to a child about a complicated and potentially deadly disease was difficult.

“How do you tell an 8-year-old not to be scared?” said Maselbas, of Frederick, Colo.

Her dog, Bo, was diagnosed with a mast cell tumor in summer 2013. Maselbas was heartbroken; having no children, she and her husband thought of their three dogs as their kids.

“I can’t even imagine the pain and fear kids and their families go through. It’s incomparable,” Maselbas said. “I had to help. I saw YAPS as an opportunity to help kids who were more scared than I was.”

Carter, an 8-year-old boy with leukemia, immediately bonded with Bo, the black Lab of the same age.

The introductory letter Maselbas wrote on behalf of her dog to Carter said:

“Hi Carter – I found out today that you chose me as your pen pal, and I’m so excited. My full name is Bocephus (Bo-see-fus), but my parents call me Bo. … What’s your favorite food? Mine is peanut butter. I got to eat peanut butter every day when I was taking medicine to help treat my tumor. I had surgery on July 3, 2013, to have my tumor removed. I was a little scared, but my parents told me to be brave and that I would do great. I hope to hear from you soon. Remember to be brave and know that we boys are strong enough to beat our cancer. Your friend, Bo.”

Said Gillespie, the program founder: “We want our patients to have the opportunity to experience wellness and fulfillment even in sickness, even when undergoing chemotherapy. YAPS is about giving the child a totally accepting friend and allowing them to just be a kid.”

— Story by Rachel Griess of the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences