I’ve had a dog or two in my life, from being gifted with a goofy, untrainable German shepherd puppy at the age of 16 by a lovesick boyfriend, to adopting a tiny ball of faux ferocity decades later, a Chihuahua mixed with miniature Doberman pinscher.

After ranting about the stupidity of my boyfriend’s buying a dog for me without asking first, my father fell head over heels in love with Lucky. 

Many years later, our little Harvi stole our hearts, all four pounds of him. My husband always believed that little dogs were worthless as guard dogs, but ended up carrying Harvi everywhere with him and showing him off around our neighborhood. 

Known for being alert and protective, Harvi would start barking and yapping if anyone came close to our home. Our UPS delivery driver dubbed him “The Dog Bell.” 

I know how meaningful it is to have a dog in your life. No offense to cat lovers. I’ve had five cats as pets, and they can be sweet and snuggly, but I found that they appear to care more about how they feel on you, rather than how they feel about you.

During a long sit-down with Montclair resident Dr. Renee Alsarraf, DVM, I learned about her life as a veterinary oncologist and the health crisis she faced herself, life imitating art. 

From the time she was 7 years old, she knew that she wanted to be a veterinarian. Her father was a medical oncologist, or a “human doctor,” as she said, and her mother was a nurse.

It was hard to get accepted into veterinary school in Michigan where she grew up, and she did her undergraduate work at Michigan State University for four years, and went on to an additional four years of medical school after that. She did her internship at NYC Animal Medical Center, completing a residency in medical oncology. 

That’s a lot of schooling to pursue her career choice, and she said, “Our patients don’t talk, and I take into account the whole animal and its family. It’s emotionally draining, but fills me right back up. I’m a fighter by nature.” 

Dr. Renee is not a veterinary surgeon, but administers chemotherapy treatments to her patients in veterinary hospitals. Some 65% of her practice is geared to dogs, 35% to cats. 

This might sound like a difficult and sad profession, but there are many touching back stories and successes.

Her husband, Mike Brown, is a veterinary ophthalmologist, a specialty I didn’t know about, and her 21-year-old son, Peter Brown, is a senior at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. 

Another vet in the family? Not so fast — he’s an astrophysics major, minoring in music and math. Now that’s what proud parents could call a genius, in a family of high achievers.

During a routine yearly gynecological appointment in July of 2018, Dr. Renee was diagnosed with what she asked us to call “the lowercase ‘c,’ not the capital C. It’s a harsh word, and I’m going into battle. I’m going to win. I celebrate the joyous times and will make the five-year cancer-free mark soon. The silver lining is the human and animal bond.” 

After undergoing surgery and 25 treatments of radiation and chemotherapy, she took a medical leave. She wrote “Sit, Stay, Heal: What Dogs Can Teach Us About Living Well” so she could “share stories about her patients and their human caregivers. It’s full of hope and help, not morbid or sorrowful.” 

For those of us going through a health crisis with “lowercase c” and numerous surgeries, as I am, or owning a pet with it, she reminds us to cherish every moment and not fret about the past or the future.

I asked Dr. Renee a question that some of you might have in mind, which was, “Why would a pet owner spend tens of thousands of dollars on treatments for a dog?” 

She said, “They are living, breathing things, who love you unconditionally. We’re all better together, and dogs are pack animals. They aren’t judgmental. My life is better for living with a dog who doesn’t care whether I take a shower or wear makeup.”

Dr. Renee’s had boxer dogs for the past 40 years, and said, “They do get a lot of cancer. While I was going through my own battle, my dog Newton was diagnosed with lymphoma when he was 6½ years old. He did not do as well as the average dog, although he was never average to begin with. 

“Newton became my nursemaid and would lay on my sofa when I wasn’t doing well. We treated him aggressively, and he lived seven months after that. I was 100% good with the choices I made for him.” 

She adopted her first female dog in 2020, another boxer, named Dusty.

I purchased a copy of “Sit, Stay, Heal” to read for myself, and the first story is about Daisy, a beloved cocker spaniel owned by the Johnson family. Ironically, Daisy’s cancer coincided with Dr. Renee’s own diagnosis in 2018, and she shares the saga of treating the dog with chemotherapy while going through her own, she herself dressed in yoga pants (while never going to yoga), Daisy in a blue gown. 

At the time of the book’s release on Oct. 18, 2022, Daisy was 14 years old and still going strong, while Dr. Renee is within reach of her five year “cancerversary” survival mark. She’s a strong woman, chatty, friendly and optimistic. 

A quote from the front of the book says, “I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent, devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other animal.” — Doris Day

In this article: Dr. Renee Alsarraf, DVM and author sitstayhealbook@gmail.com