BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Treating the mind of a cancer patient is often just as important as the chemo and radiation, experts say. One local cancer center is piloting a new Survivorship program that helps animals and humans heal each other.
Shelter pup 'Weezy' got a little taste of freedom one recent morning at Companion Animal Alliance in Baton Rouge.
Cancer survivor Barbara Keller got the chance to take him out for a run in the shelter's yard. She was tasked with deciding between him and a timid 6-year-old schnauzer mix
Keller was diagnosed with two different types of breast cancer two years apart. She's now the first local survivor paired with a foster dog as part of a new partnership with Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center.
Interaction with animals is proven to lower anxiety.
"We also know that the hormones that get produced in the body as a result of being with an animal increases and enhances the immune system. It also lowers blood pressure and reduces your heart rate," said Francinne Lawrence, Director of Survivorship Services for Mary Bird.
Taking care of a foster dog also gives the patient a reason to get up in the morning or an excuse to go for a walk. Keller credits her own dog with helping her beat her disease.
"They'll come up and put their paw on you or their head on your knee, and it's like somebody's holding your hand, but they're not talking," she said. "You know when you have cancer everybody tries to fix you."
The program called Fostering Hope will eventually reach 20 families in its first year. Patients only foster the animals for a few weeks. The dogs benefit as much as their humans.
"There are other dogs that end up sitting here for months and people just keep on passing them by, and that's why the foster program is so great," said Lily Yap, CAA's Foster and Rescue Coordinator. "People take them into their homes, they train them, they love them, they get to know them, and they're adopted like that."
Students at Episcopal raised nearly $1,000 to buy supplies to go along with each foster dog, including a cage and treats. Survivors are carefully screened to make sure they're able to handle the responsibility of a foster dog.
"I have patients say to me that while the physicians have helped heal their body, it's the mind/body medicine programs like Fostering Hope that have really saved their lives," Lawrence said. "And I think what they're saying is it's given them a quality of life and given them a way to understand the healing process and to understand their journey with cancer in a way that's been productive and helps them grow as a person."
Keller decided on the schnauzer mix, but she needed a name. That decision was a lot easier. Fostering 'Hope' seemed like a good fit.
Lawrence hopes the program will eventually serve as a model for other cancer centers around the country.
CLICK HERE to learn more about Survivorship Services at Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center