Youth and Pet Survivors Program

Unique Support Program Allows Pet Pen Pals to Bring Hope to Kids with Cancer

YAPS"To give pleasure to a single heart by a single act is better than a thousand heads bowing in prayer." – Mohandas K. Gandhi

Boone, Bruiser, Emmy and Jake were very special. Besides being of the same species, these four shared other, unique characteristics: beloved family members, survivors of serious health threats, and writers of wonderful letters that brought smiles, comfort and encouragement to a child undergoing treatment for cancer.

These four dogs, along with other canine and feline volunteers, participated in a unique cancer support program that matches children with cancer with pets that have survived life-threatening health problems, and designates them as pen pals.

The Youth and Pet Survivors program, or YAPS, is a non-profit, donation-supported program started in 2001 as the brain-child of Anne Ingalls Gillespie, a registered nurse specializing in pediatric oncology at Children's Hospital in Denver, Colo.

"Children's has a program called Prescription Pets, which brings therapeutic dogs into the hospital to visit patients. Ten years ago it was decided that it was unsafe for the animals to visit the pediatric oncology patients because the kids have compromised immune systems," Gillespie explained. "I felt it was important for the kids to experience the benefits of an animal therapy relationship, so I came up with the pen pal idea."

Cancer is the leading cause of disease-related death among children ages 15 and younger, and the leading cause of death in pet animals. Treatment can sometimes be as debilitating as the disease. How do children cope with the stress of a disease they don't understand and sometimes cannot even pronounce?

When Gillespie started YAPS, veterinary oncology was a growing field, with new treatment options available for pets with cancer and more owners choosing to treat. Many veterinarians were willing to work with her, including the veterinary oncologists at the Colorado State University Flint Animal Cancer Center.

"This is the only program of its kind," Gillespie said. "YAPS has a solid ten year track record and, although we still have growing pains, we've been 100% successful with the kids and pet families who have participated. We are very proud of that."

How does YAPS work?

"Qualifying pets and their owners go though an application process," explained Mary Lafferty, veterinary oncology nurse and YAPS representative at the CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center. "At the FACC, we include information about the program in all of our new oncology patient packets. Interested owners are carefully screened to assure they understand the process and the emotional challenges involved."

Once accepted, the animal's bio and photo is added to a pen pal portfolio. Young patients choose their pen pal and receive a YAPS starter kit: a tote bag containing stationery, stickers and other letter writing materials. The kids sign a "contract" agreeing to participate and to respond to their pen pal in a timely manner. The contract also stipulates that, if the child ever feels they can no longer participate, they only have to let Gillespie know.

The animal pen pal writes first, following content guidelines developed by Gillespie, and owners are asked to write in the animal's voice. The letter is sent directly to the child's home or, if hospitalized, it is delivered to them in the ward.

In these letters, kids unburden themselves, expressing their deepest fears, thoughts and hopes; feelings they cannot share with others, even family. Participants have said that writing to an animal pen pal who has experienced a similar health crisis makes them feel less alone and gives them hope.

Emmy"My dog pen pal always listens. He gets me," expressed one young participant. "I know my dog pen pal won't judge me."

Emmy Streeter, a lively black Labrador, was treated at the CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center for osteosarcoma. Emmy underwent not only amputation of the affected leg, but also participated in a clinical trial testing a new gene therapy for osteosarcoma that could eventually translate into treatments for children with that form of cancer.

Emmy and her owner, Kathi, joined YAPS after Emmy's recovery. Emmy's pen pal, Ashtyn, was being treated for brain cancer. They became such faithful correspondents that Ashtyn brought pictures of Emmy into surgery.

Jake Blake, a happy yellow Lab, was treated at the FACC for a soft tissue sarcoma. Initially thought to be untreatable, his owner Mike signed Jake up for a clinical trial testing a new drug called liposomal clodronate. The treatment helped to not only extend Jake's life, but also to enhance the quality of his Jakelife for that time. Jake and Mike joined YAPS, which Mike described as "such a cool program and it adds one more dimension to Jake's life."

Sibling program. YAPS includes a sibling component that pairs the unaffected sibling with a sibling pet pen pal. Siblings often feel left out when the affected child necessarily becomes the focus of the family's attention. The pen pal correspondence helps the unaffected child feel they are sharing the family's experience.

"A recent patient was a twin," Gillespie recalled. "I immediately signed both up for a pen pal. Minda, the patient, was paired with Gryphon, a beautiful black Lab with cancer; while Maddie, her sister, got Alex, the lab's mixed breed brother. It worked really well."

While Minda's letter from Gryphon expressed encouragement about her latest round of treatment, Maddie's letter from Alex sympathized with those inevitable feelings of jealousy. Alex wrote: "Gryphon got extra treats again. I know the visits to the doctor make him sick, and it is awful, but I still get jealous. But, you know what? Tomorrow I'm getting extra treats, too! So hang in there, Maddie!"

Most animals in the program are cancer survivors, but others have survived other serious health problems.

Boone and SeanBoone Fredman, for example, was hit by a car and lost his foreleg. After surgery, the sweet-tempered yellow Lab was adopted by Connie Fredman of Fort Collins, Colo. Connie operates Canine Health Resort, a medical boarding facility providing post-hospitalization pet care in a home environment. She also fosters dogs waiting to be adopted through local rescues. Boone became a certified therapy dog, volunteering regularly in local hospitals and hospices before he and Connie joined YAPS in 2003. Boone's first pen pal was Sean, an 18-year-old cancer survivor who had lost a leg to Ewing's sarcoma. They became fast friends.

"I wasn't sure how to write to a teenager," Connie confessed, "but I wrote the letter as I thought Boone would write it. Sean responded right away and a year later we met Sean and his family at a YAPS get together. It was like meeting old friends."

New Lives BookWhen Sean died just months later, Connie and Boone were invited to attend the funeral. The story of Sean and Boone appears in the book New Lives: Stories of Rescued Dogs Helping, Healing, and Giving Hope, by Joanne Wannan.

Gillespie organizes annual reunions where pen pals can actually meet, but acknowledged that strong bonds can develop between families who will often arrange get-togethers on their own, at their homes or places halfway between.

Bruiser, a loveable English Mastiff, and his 12-year-old pen pal, Delaney finally met in "person" at a YAPS reunion. Bruiser, who lost a leg to osteosarcoma, wrote many humorous, engaging letters to Delaney during her chemo treatments.

Twelve year-old Anise, who was Boone's new YAPS pen pal, lived in the same Longmont, Colo., neighborhood as Delaney. The families communicated regularly, beyond the letter-writing, lending support throughout the ups and downs of health problems as well as the ups and downs of two girls maturing into teenagers.

Boone and AniseThe Children's Hospital Courage Classic, the annual bike ride fundraiser held at Copper Mountain, Colo., in July is another get-together. Connie Fredman is a regular Team YAPS participant, along with her canine partner who rides behind in an attached carriage. Boone was her first Team YAPS partner, and now Spree participates. Spree is also a therapy dog and a YAPS pen pal. Spree's brother, Dexter, a chocolate Lab, is a YAPS sibling pen pal.

Gillespie has short- and long-term program goals. Through donations, she wants to establish a bank of pet items from which patients can choose a gift for their pen pal. Pet families will often send small presents to the kids - a toy, a special pillow - but patient families don't always have funds at the time to return the gift. The gift bank would allow kids to choose their own gift for their special pal.

Gillespie also wants to see YAPS expand nationally.

"I'd like to see childrens' hospitals and veterinary oncology units throughout the country working together to support their own YAPS chapter," Gillespie said. "YAPS transcends circumstances. It's about companionship and healing, sharing and celebrating life."

For more information about YAPS, or to make a tax-deductible donation, please visit www.youthandpetsurvivors.org.

* The dogs featured in this article appear in the YAPS annual calendar, available for purchase at $25 each (which includes shipping); or two or more calendars for $20.00 each.

* The book New Lives, by Joanne Wannan, autographed by featured YAPS pen pal, Boone, is available for purchase at $20.00 each (includes shipping).

All proceeds from the sale of the calendar and the book go directly to support the YAPS program.