Montclair author writes about the healing power of beloved pets
Dr. Renee Alsarraf knows about cancer.
As a veterinary oncologist, she has treated hundreds of dogs with various forms of the disease. She has guided as many individuals and families through the gut-wrenching decisions that come with cancer treatment in their beloved dogs – chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, drugs that provide a certain level of comfort and even euthanasia.
Her comforting advice as they weigh impossible decisions: “There is no wrong answer here.”
Then she learned more than she ever wanted to know about the disease in the summer of 2018 when she received her own diagnosis of metastatic cancer, which she could refer to only as the “C word.”
“I hate the name of my disease,” Alsarraf, a Montclair resident since 2007, said in the introduction to her new book, “Sit, Stay, Heal: What Dogs Can Teach Us About Living Well.”
“I work to treat cancer every day, and yet when it comes to the diagnosis for myself, I can only call it the C word. Dysfunctional? Perhaps. But I detest the word ‘cancer.’ It produces instant anxiety and fear in people, and I am no exception. Having this disease has felt like a sucker punch, one that I never, ever expected.”
During Alsarraf’s treatment, her 6-year-old brindle boxer served as her “constant nursemaid.”
“Newton is a wonderful companion; his warm brown eyes look at me lovingly every day,” she wrote.
One day as he was comforting her and she was petting him, Alsarraf found enlarged lymph nodes under his neck. “No, no, no,” she thought, “our dog cannot have cancer while I am going through my own battle.”
Tests confirmed her worst fears; Newton had lymphoma.
“Sit, Stay, Heal” recounts the story of Alsarraf’s cancer treatment as well as Newton’s. In addition, it tells the stories of other dogs with cancer and the people who love them. It focuses on the ability of dogs to experience life as it comes without worrying about the future. In essence, they embody the concepts of mindfulness.
“We’re living with these wonderful four-legged friends that show us how to be in the moment every day,” Alsarraf said in a recent phone interview. “And it truly makes our lives better.”
Dogs approach cancer treatment without the fear and anxiety that can overwhelm human cancer patients, Alsarraf said. After a chemotherapy infusion, dogs often jump off the table, wag their tails and look for a biscuit. They don’t worry about scars or hair loss (most dogs don’t lose their hair with chemotherapy). Many dogs take amputation as just something requiring a small adjustment.
“I think dogs possess this magical quality about them,” Alsarraf said. “Perhaps it's a sixth sense. They can be fantastic guides to all of us who struggle at times.”
Alsarraf had not intended to become an author. When she was undergoing treatment, she stayed off social media. From time to time, she updated her closest friends with email messages about how her treatment was going. The email group eventually grew to 75 people.
“People were so kind, they would periodically email me back with words of encouragement and support,” she said. “And sometimes they would say: ‘Have you ever thought about writing a book? You really should consider writing a book.’”
Once her treatment was complete, Alsarraf would occasionally run into people at Whole Foods who would ask if she had started writing her book. The answer, no. Then she and her husband, Mike, had a getaway weekend in Rhode Island. She read her horoscope in the newspaper that was delivered to the room. “My horoscope said – literally, I kid you not – ‘You should begin writing your book today.’” She started it two days later.
“Because I'm really type A and kind of driven, I set a goal to try to write 1,000 words a day, and I averaged about that,” said Alsarraf, who did most of her writing at her kitchen island on her computer.
“It was a passion, like I couldn't stop doing it,” she said. “I always knew that was the best part of my day, even if I was exhausted from a day's work. But it was also really emotionally exhausting. I would finish writing and I was wiped out, just because it was a lot to go through.”
She added that her husband and her son were very supportive as she devoted time to the project.
“When I was on a roll, I'd be a little crabby if one of them interrupted me,” Alsarraf said, “because if I was in the zone, I couldn't think about making dinner right at that moment.”
Now that the book has been published, Alsarraf is making appearances at bookstores in addition to continuing her veterinary practice. She will appear at Watchung Booksellers on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 7 p.m.
“I hope that the book gives the reader this incredible insight to the enormous power of the human-animal bond and how it makes our lives better,” she said. “I think that dogs understand us on a much deeper level than we even understand each other. And they can do that without words.”