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Comfort for cancer patients

Breast cancer survivor Karen McLaren is giving back to the BC Cancer Agency’s Fraser Valley Centre with the help of her therapy dog Lara.          - Boaz Joseph / The Leader
Breast cancer survivor Karen McLaren is giving back to the BC Cancer Agency’s Fraser Valley Centre with the help of her therapy dog Lara.
— image credit: Boaz Joseph / The Leader

The word “horse” comes up twice in just five minutes – playfully – from people in a waiting area at the BC Cancer Agency’s Fraser Valley Centre.

A young girl playing with a toy dragon doesn’t know what to make of Lara, a 130-pound great Dane who introduces herself with a gentle sniff.

“She likes people,” handler Karen McLaren reassures the girl. “Not to eat – to play with.”

The conversation soon moves to a woman’s laid-back corgi-cross back at home; another man, petting Lara, describes his dog who retrieves the mail and newspaper.

Lara’s job is to lift spirits in a place full of somber news, confusion, pain, fear and occasional boredom.

The people Lara and McLaren meet are patients undergoing tests, chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, as well as their loved ones and caregivers.

While Lara is on the job in the red vest and white bandana of a certified therapy dog from St. John Ambulance, she’s also the pet of McLaren, a 36-year-old cancer survivor and former patient at the centre.

McLaren, diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2005, was treated over the next several months in the place she now visits with Lara each Wednesday morning.

At the time she underwent cancer treatment, there were few support resources available to patients, she says. There was no library, almost nothing to read and no comfort cart like there is now.

“You came here, you talked to your doctor, you got your treatment – it wasn’t the warm-and-fuzzies. There was no place if you were having a bad moment to walk away or for a caregiver to go away and just breathe.”

After McLaren finished her treatment, she heard about the need for therapy dogs – at a time when support services were ramping up at the BC Cancer Agency.

“I decided I had the perfect dog for it and I was the perfect fit for it because I’ve been here – I’ve walked in these shoes, so why not give back?”

Petting Lara gives the patients and caregivers a timeout from the present, a welcome moment of relaxation in the tense atmosphere.

“When the dog walks into the centre, it’s almost like there’s an audible sigh,” says Ellen Suarez, regional coordinator of Volunteer Services at the Fraser Valley Centre.

Even the staff is affected, adds Suarez.

McLaren, for her part, gives patients someone to talk to who isn’t their primary care provider or family.

They’re a two-person therapy team.

“I’m giving them hope because I’m a survivor, and I think my dog brings them maybe 30 seconds of not having to be in their head why they’re here.”

McLaren says it’s amazing to watch the reactions from patients.

“To be honest, having to be a patient here, it sucks. You’re dealing with life and death. It’s hard on the patient and the family, and if Lara and I can bring that smile, or that relief or that time in not-in-Cancerland, then I am so happy.”

McLaren tells the story of how Lara assertively approached a woman who was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

McLaren was fully prepared to pull Lara back if the patient was uncomfortable with the attention.

“Lara went right to the cancer spot and started nudging and the lady just grabbed on and said, ‘Help me, help me. Help me heal.’ "

McLaren and Lara met another woman undergoing chemotherapy.

“My poor children, my poor children, what are they going to do without a mother?” she cried.

When Lara sat in front of her, the woman suddenly grabbed the dog by the skin, brought her in, and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I can do this now,” she said.

McLaren, a former patient herself, is six months away from a five-year cancer-free status.

• Want to help support the Fraser Valley Centre and enjoy a little vino at the same time?

The Rotary Club of Surrey’s Wine and Food Celebration will be held on April 30 from 7-9:30 p.m. in the food court of Central City Shopping Centre, 10153 King George Blvd. Proceeds will go towards the construction of a planned quiet room and resource centre at the BC Cancer Agency’s Fraser Valley Centre.

The event will feature live music, a fashion show, wine tastings offered by 19 vintners and food from several local restaurants. The cost is $40. Tickets are available at the mall’s administration office or on the BC Cancer Foundation website at www.bccancerfoundation.com – click on Events.

For more information about volunteering with the BC Cancer Agency, visit www.bccancer.bc.ca

bjoseph@surreyleader.com

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