Four-legged friends help kids with cancer

By Nora Heston Tarte

“Your child has cancer.”

Nothing can prepare you for these four words. But they are the four words responsible for launching K9 Companions, a visit and placement program for assistance and therapy dogs to aid children with cancer, operated through the Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children (ACFC).

“At only 18 months old, my daughter, Ava, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of pediatric cancer. For more than three and a half years we traveled across the United States seeking the best care,” shares Chrisie Funari, founder of ACFC. “During that time, Ava endured more toxic treatments than most adult cancer patients.”

At age 5, Ava lost her battle with cancer. But Chrisie picked up the pieces and put her experience to good use, determined to find a way to help other families battling cancer. She founded the ACFC, an organization that provides social, emotional and financial support directly to families managing the health and well being of a loved one with pediatric cancer.

“It is my personal experience and our passion for going the extra mile that I believe truly differentiates ACFC from other nonprofits,” Chrisie says.

More recently, ACFC has launched K9 Companions, a program that brings therapy dogs to hospitals, homes, hospice facilities and funerals, as well as places assistance dogs in-home with children who have cancer. The goal is to bring a smile to each child’s face with a friend who can provide support—both physically and emotionally—through treatment and recovery.

“Our therapy dogs have a magical way of putting everyone at ease—children, caregivers and medical staff alike,” Chrisie says.

The placement program not only locates suitable assistance dogs for patients, it also helps qualifying families fund the placement of these dogs.

Currently, K9 Companion is helping to find a dog for 9-year-old Abri.

“It is a long process that involves her meeting several dogs and finding the best match for her,” says Abri’s mother Nikkole.

An assistance dog will help Abri, who uses a wheelchair and walker, with everyday physical tasks including opening doors, walking and carrying items. The dog will also be a motivator for physical therapy and a constant companion, offering additional medical benefits such as lowering blood pressure, reducing physical pain and providing relaxation.

“There are many things that Abri cannot do and her friends can… She will always have her dog to love on when she feels left out,” Nikkole says.

To obtain a dog through the program, Abri, who was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in September 2015, had to first write a letter explaining her desire for an assistance dog. She then had to ask others to write letters of recommendation and answer questionnaires about Abri. Her doctor also had to sign off on the addition.

To be eligible, all patients must be a child diagnosed with some form of cancer and reside in the state of Arizona. The process is lengthy but ensures that the program is funding animal companions for the right caretakers.

“I am most looking forward to having a friend that is always there when I can’t do things like the other kids,” Abri says.

Even after a year of chemotherapy and limb salvage surgery that replaced Abri’s tibia with the arm bone of a cadaver, her medical treatments aren’t over yet.

“Abri… experiences a lot of anxiety when it comes to medical procedures and appointments after everything she has been through and her dog would be there to help ease her fears,” Nikkole says.

For those who do not qualify for or otherwise cannot obtain an assistance dog, therapy dogs also offer relief. Through ACFC, resident therapy dogs Duke and Luca visit children with cancer to offer support.

Before receiving approval through the program to receive an assistance dog all her own, Abri reaped many benefits from the therapy dogs on staff at K9 Companions. They were especially helpful when Abri didn’t feel like she could endure the treatments anymore, a hard necessity for children to understand.

“The therapy dogs have made me very, very happy because they always cheered me up when I was sad and didn’t want to go through my cancer treatments anymore,” Abri says

“A visit from one of ACFC’s K9 Companions guarantees smiles all around,” Chrisie says.

To learn more about the ACFC, visit www.azcancerfoundation.org.

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