Penpal program provides joy to kids and pets with cancer

In honor of Pet Cancer Awareness Month, the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital is hosting a special penpal program to give both pets and kids with cancer a chance to interact and correspond.

The unique program is part of Youth and Pet Survivors (YAPS) and encourages pediatric cancer patients to write letters to pets who are also afflicted with the disease. Pet owners respond to each child with handwritten letters and share stories of the pet’s own medical struggles and triumphs.

“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 in a statement. Gillespie founded YAPS in 2001.

One example of this amazing partnership is the story of Caleb and Pepper. Caleb is a 15-year-old patient at the Children’s Hospital Colorado who had to battle against an optic tumor and the loss of vision in his one eye. He underwent chemotherapy treatments for eight years. Pepper is a 7-year-old Pomeranian who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2012. The tumor pinched the pooch’s optic nerve and caused paralysis in his face. Pepper had to have one of his eyes surgically removed.

Caleb picked Pepper as his penpal from a list of animal profiles available for the service. Both the boy and the dog share similar stories and, Pam Payne, Pepper’s owner, says that she tries to use the story of her pet to inspire Caleb and be uplifting. She writes funny stories about Pepper as often as she can.

The penpal service also provides emotional benefits and support for pet parents. Aime Chapman’s Labrador Retriever, Eli, was diagnosed with skeletal system cancer. To get Eli the treatment he needed, Chapman reached out to friends and family on Facebook to raise money. She saw YAPS as a way to “pay it forward.”

Eli was matched up with Emma, a 14-year-old patient with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Chapman said that hearing Emma’s story was eye opening. Even after doctors declared that Emma's cancer was in remission, the 14 year old continued to send letters to Eli to support the dog (and Chapman) during chemotherapy treatments.

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

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