Never Underestimate An Animal's Nature To Feel What You're Feeling During Cancer

Any cancer diagnosis is devastating. When you hear that word, it can instill instant fear. You wonder what will happen to you. More than that, you will wonder if you’ll survive. Questions monopolize your brain, taking it over, searing terror into your everyday life. When this happened to me, I discovered I had an unlikely ally: Uptown Girl, my seven-year-old Canadian Horn mare.

The farm was on nearly 40 acres with trees and small ponds. There were fields through it, along with gently rolling hills and breathtaking views. My mare could go anywhere she wanted on that immense swath of land, and she had a habit of leaving her herd of four horses and hanging out alone. While she always came to me when I approached, she didn’t always stay long.

That all changed in the year 2015 when my doctor told me that I had papillary thyroid cancer. After my diagnosis, she refused to leave my side. When I arrived at the farm, she would be there, waiting for me at the gate. She had food, water, and herd mates to keep her busy, but she was choosing me over everything else; it was something she had never done before.  Sometimes I would head to the acreage and sit below towering maples and bright pines. She would always leave the herd and fall asleep next to me, her head hanging low by my side. She quickly became my anchor - my rock - in this time of fear and confusion. 

I had heard of animals being used in hospitals and medical clinics to soothe patients, but I had never experienced the effect first hand. Uptown Girl seemed to know that something abnormal was happening within my body and my normally stoic mare was fast becoming affectionate.

As my surgery date grew closer, my stress increased. I had university courses to help me focus, but it wasn’t enough. Slowly, I descended into depression and my anxiety got to the point where I began to miss classes. I didn’t visit the farm as much and spent much of my time at home. Several days before my surgery, I visited Uptown Girl. She didn’t come to me like she had the last several months and even seemed to ignore me. Despite that I went to her, she barely looked at me. At one point she even moved away, turning her back to me. It was as though she thought I had abandoned her.

My heart crushed, I left the farm. Days later I had my surgery, which went beautifully. ‘Textbook’ my surgeon told me. I recovered for two weeks, my mental state crumbling and weak. Just over two weeks later, I went back to the farm. Uptown Girl was waiting for me, and as I approached her, she tucked her nose into the crook of my elbow and breathed against me. I felt my stress ebbing out of me as I held her, and to this day I believe she had been just as overwhelmed with emotion as me throughout my journey with cancer.

Not usually affectionate, Uptown Girl was a very stoic mare. She would often come to me even when I didn’t ask her to, but physical contact of her own accord was rare. When she touched me that day, when she breathed against me, it softened the blow of my very recent cancer surgery and made me feel at ease. In the weeks and months that followed that day, simply knowing that my mare was a rallying force against my very prominent and almost debilitating depression lifted my spirits and gave me the motivation to get back on my feet and keep living. 

Animals have long been known to comfort humans in times of stress, panic, and even anger. They offer us a love that is unconditional and it’s the tougher moments in our lives where it’s possible to understand how much animals – especially those close to us already - do for us. Whether it’s a cat, a dog, a horse, or something else, having a pet can truly change someone’s outlook for the better. Without judgment and without fear, my mare was a grounding force in one of the most challenging chapters of my life.