Canine caregivers 'Bark for Life'

Bonnie Sticca and her canine caregiver, Sammi.
Reminder Publications submitted photo
April 4, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

GREATER SPRINGFIELD — When Bonnie Sticca returned from her weekly chemo treatments to combat a recurrence of endometrial cancer earlier this year, her dog, Sammi, would be the one waiting for her.

"They know when it's chemo day," Sticca said of her faithful friend, who was adopted from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal's former Springfield shelter 11 years ago. "They know when you don't feel good. Sometimes it was 30 times a day I'd be getting sick to my stomach [and] she would wait at the foot of the bed, not asking to go out. She'd be so patient until I felt better."

On April 16, Sticca and Sammi will celebrate her continued cancer survival by taking part in the American Cancer Society (ACS) Bark for Life — a Canine Event to Fight Cancer — at Stanley Park in Westfield.

Registration and dog/owner socializing begins at 9 a.m. with step-off at 10:15 a.m. A full schedule of activities, including a dog-and-owner look-alike contest and games, Dog Scouts of America sponsored agility course, barrel races, a photo studio and dog trick shows will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Registration is $20 per dog/owner pair and participants and teams are asked to fund-raise for ACS in advance. The cost is $10 for walkers without canine companions and cancer survivors are welcome to participate at no cost.

For more information, to support a team or to sign up to walk in advance, visit the event's Web site at www.relayforlife.org/barkforlifema.

Sticca — with Sammi by her side — is serving as the honorary chair for this first-time-ever-in-Western Massachusetts event, an outgrowth of the annual Relay for Life walks that take place throughout the area during the spring and summer.

"Dogs are not permitted at Relay events, for safety reasons, so Bark For Life was conceived to acknowledge and pay tribute to the unique care giving role our dogs play in modern life," Western Mass. Bark for Life organizer Siobhan Cullen told Reminder Publications. "All dog owners can relate to that feeling of wanting to get home after a bad day and just snuggle up with your dog. Dogs don't judge and they don't care what you look like, they love you unconditionally and they are there for you unconditionally."

Gregory Thompson, executive director of Income Development for the New England Division of ACS, said of the inspiration behind Bark for Life, "Many times a cancer survivor has no one to turn to but their canine and it was hard to tell [them] that their canine caregiver was not welcome [at a walk]." According to Cullen, the first Bark for Life walk took place in Michigan "a few years ago." She learned about the dog-and-owner cancer fund-raisers through Modern Dog magazine and took her dog, Toby, to the May 2010, Bark for Life in New York City.

"We had a great time and I vowed that I was going to bring Bark for Life to Western Mass.," said Cullen, who is also a member of the Greater Springfield Relay for Life Planning Committee. She and a small group of volunteers started planning the Western Mass. Bark for Life last September. By the end of March, they had 95 dog-owner pairs registered for the event.

Sticca said she met Cullen through friends who were part of the Bark for Life Planning Committee. After hearing Sticca's story of being diagnosed with stage four endometrial cancer in July 2009 and how Sammi had been her canine companion through treatment, Cullen invited her to be honorary chair.

"When I was given my diagnosis the cancer was everywhere; I had six pounds of poison in my body," Sticca said. "[Siobhan] thought I was very strong and positive and a good role model [for the walk]."

Cullen called Sticca "such a source of inspiration," adding, "She's such a petite woman, but she has such a life spark, such a passion for living."

Bark for Life is being sponsored by the Good Dog Spot and Dave's Soda and Pet Food City. Dr. Claire Weigand, canine oncology specialist at the Veterinary Emergency Specialty Hospital of South Deerfield, will serve as the onsite veterinarian. All pre-registered dogs will receive a bandanna and individuals who raise more than $100 will receive a Bark for Life T-shirt.

"The number of events [across the country] has just swelled," Thompson said. "It really shows how much canine caregivers mean to people."

For more information, contact Thompson at ACS at Gregory.thompson@cancer.org or call 493-2122.



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