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A Patient's Best Friend

A Patient's Best Friend

Tracie Cline, 25, spent her whole life in a small town in Pennsylvania, but the energetic young yoga instructor sought a new adventure. She’d always wanted to live at the beach and was preparing to move to Charleston, South Carolina, with her trusty dog Mia, an Australian shepherd/collie mix, when she found a lump in her breast.

On the first day of spring in 2018, Tracie was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer. Confronting breast cancer upended her plans, at least temporarily. It also frightened her. She knew what would calm her anxiety and fears while receiving treatment, but she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to use that source of support in a hospital setting.

“I told my nurse navigator, Catherine Klein, ‘I don’t want to do this if I can’t have Mia with me,’” recalls Tracie. “She makes me more comfortable and at ease when I’m scared.” In turn, Klein, whose role as a breast cancer nurse navigator is to help breast cancer patients through their treatment and recovery journey, assisted with initiating the process so that Mia was allowed to accompany Tracie to her appointments as an emotional support animal (ESA).

ESAs are pets that provide comfort to their owners during stressful situations. In a medical setting, they are considered part of the treatment program as they minimize patients’ negative emotional symptoms, according to the National Service Animal Registry. Unlike service animals, ESAs don’t require specific training. They simply must be manageable in public.

A 2015 study in the Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology was the first to document the improved emotional well-being of cancer patients using animal-assisted therapy.

“She steals the show,” says Tracie. Everyone’s like, ‘Hi Mia.’ She just lights up everyone’s faces.”

Cline is thankful for her health care team, including her nurse navigator, surgeon Mehran Habibi and oncologist Roisin Connolly, for making it possible to have Mia be a part of her treatment process. Subsequently, Tracie is considering “paying forward” the goodwill by seeing if Mia could be an ESA for cancer patients at her local hospital in Pennsylvania.

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