Monday, February 4, 2013


Dog Shadow

Toward the end of my breast cancer treatment, I couldn’t do much besides sleep. “An exhaustion like nobody knows,” the kind receptionist outside the radiation oncology department called it. Along with painful burns (and the fact that all the other 26-year-olds I knew were off living instead of trekking to the hospital daily), the regimen's side effects could have made the last four months of 2011 an isolating experience. But I was never alone, because my dog, Kip, refused to let me leave his sight. My ‘dog shadow’ followed me from room to room, wedging his back beside my thigh wherever I settled. This from a dog who normally spent his time hiding in the little-used living room, prefering to nap undisturbed.

About a year post-treatment, I’m a card-carrying resident of Cancerland. Barbara Ehrenreich derided it as a place where “the appropriate attitude is upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive.” But if you avoid the pink-ribbon mean girls and cluster in the corner with the loudmouthed misfits, it’s more a scrubby, desert hinterland, where dark humor abides and medical jargon is colloquial. Well-meaning outsiders approach the border reluctantly – There but for the Grace of God go I – and tell me about diagnoses of women I only vaguely know, new Cancerland dwellers. But if they don’t know the answers to my follow-up questions about tumor biology, I just smile and nod and turn the conversation to something lighter, like Kippy. He's been my go-to anecdote source for the last 13 years, when I’m not relating the newest sex-related quip from my 90-year-old grandfather or tales of my boss’s ring-necked dove, who sleeps — and shits — on his very own crystal bowl in his very own bathroom.

When my family first met Kippy 13 years ago, we didn’t want him. He was part of a litter of Tibetan terriers, and we had our pick. I was in love with a little black lady. My mom was starry-eyed for the litter’s chunky alpha puppy. Nobody noticed the brown guy in the corner. But he picked us, toddling over to my brother and making it clear that, when we left, he’d be coming too. I held him on my lap for the long car ride home, and he cried the entire way. 

Since then, I graduated from high school, then college, then filtered restlessly through a host of jobs throughout the northeast. Kippy grew from mousy to 35 furry pounds, with a noble white chest, a black snout, a rich chocolate back, and a tail that, when he walks, looks like a swishing flag. And he matured into a position of royalty. When Mom bought a new couch for the family room, she was careful to pick one whose armrests worked with Kip’s fondness for perching his head atop them. He gets eight nights of Chanukah gifts every year, and when he doesn’t feel like eating kibble, someone either coaxes him by hand, bite by bite, or fries him an egg. My dad lets Kip decide where they’ll walk when they go outside together, and Kip often leads Dad toward the homes of various friends who store treats for him, which means that he has to lie to the dog and tell him that Jill and Tina aren’t home when Kip tries to visit them at 6 a.m.

I'd accompany these stories with iPhone photos of his adorable glare — he’s so cute, you don’t even know. The stories no longer naturally lighten the mood, though, because we recently found out that Kippy has an aggressive melanoma that will likely kill him within the next few months. I was visiting when he had the primary tumor — a dime-sized, gelatinous lump — removed from his eyelid. The vet cut off a sliver of eyelid and sutured the remaining bits together, attempting clear margins before we learned that Kip’s cancer cells divide so fast it’s inevitable that it’s already spread.

When we went to pick Kippy up from his surgery, in a tapering snowstorm, he was disoriented, indignant. Unlike when I opted for my lumpectomy and signed all the permissions and releases, Kippy had no say in the fact that he was suddenly in pain, wearing that barbaric lampshade collar to keep him from pawing the stitches. We took him home, and then he and I dozed off together in my childhood bed, just like when I was the one in treatment.

In the past year and a half, I’ve learned that I can deal with cancer and its treatment, but Kippy's sickness marks my limit. I've heard that women who want children see babies everywhere; in my mind, everyone in New York City is walking a dog. I wrote a personal blog post titled “I hate everything,” burrowed into a comforter, and cried for days, emerging to eat cupcakes and refresh my tissue supply.

This is not how denizens of Cancerland are supposed to react to a diagnosis. To quote Ehrenreich again, “cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason.” She was describing, specifically, the rah-rah nature of pink-ribbon culture, which elevates optimism in a way that suggests those who didn’t “win the battle” with cancer died because they weren’t chipper enough.

Bullocks to that. My dog is optimistic about life in a manner only possible for one who always gets his way. Nobody in my family has eaten a fortune cookie for the past decade, because he loves them. His life is an unending chain of knowing things will turn out exactly as he wishes.

Still, his cancer is going to kill him, and it will happen soon. I don’t know what I’ll do then, but I’m glad that, as I welcome him to the neighborhood, I know he won’t have to be here for long.

Kira Goldenberg is an associate editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

49 Comments / Post A Comment


My heart is breaking for you, Kira. One million hugs.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

Oh no. I'm so sorry for your Kip. As a peripheral member of Cancerland (child of a rad guy with some serious lymphoma), I appreciate your references to Ehrenreich - that book made me feel better about being mad and not upbeat. I hope you get to spend plenty of time with your little pal.


@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

Fellow Lymphoma daughter, I agree about the book. I was mad and sad and raging against everything when he got diagnosed. Fuck cheerfulness!

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@DullHypothesis Yeah. There's room for optimism, certainly. But not all the time.


MY EYES WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEM. There are many somethings in both of my eyes.


Sobbing quietly at my dinner table and wanting nothing more than to go to my parents' house and hug the dogs. Kip sounds like a champion who knows that he's absolutely loved and also that he is a very handsome boy. I hope that when he goes, it's easy and painless for the little guy.

Big hugs to you and Kippy too.

Theda Baranowski

I'm so sorry, Kira. Even the thought of letting go of my cat is enough to make me tear up, and I'll never forget the phone call in college when my dad told me they had to put my dog to sleep because she, too, had an aggressive melanoma and could no longer even get up to go outside.


oh no. it is possible to feel how loved Kip is, it's radiating out of my computer screen. this was so beautiful.

fondue with cheddar

Wow...what a beautiful, heartbreaking story. I'm glad you're able to to be there for him like he was for you. Kippy sounds like such a sweet boy.


i want to hug his picture.

Angry Panda

I am so sorry. Nearly 5 years ago, I moved back home and went through cancer treatment and had a "Kip" for company too (he let me share the couch). Two years later he passed away after a brief illness, and although I miss him every day I am glad I was at home with him at that time. Dogs' lives are too short. Please give him a hug from me.


I'm so sorry. Kip sounds so wonderful. Pets have such a special place in our lives, and no one can tell me I'm crazy for still mourning my best friend pup, who died in 2009 of an aneurysm, or the calm cuddly kitty who comforted me throughout adolescence.

Oh, squiggles

So much crying. God, pets, man. They just...man. Whooo....

My little pup (who is about to turn 9 this year) cuddles up to me like that all the time. I would just miss that so much...

Sad for you, but happy that you and your family gave Kippy such a good life.


I'm so so sorry! Kip sounds like a wonderful dog. I hope you're able to enjoy the time you have left with him.


Beautiful. So touching, heartbreaking and fantastically written. Best of luck to you and Kippy, your relationship is wonderful and full of braveness.

But why oh why did I choose to read this while at work? Stories like this break my heart into a million pieces and turn on the waterworks. My childhood dog still lives with my parents, 3,000 miles away, and I think I miss him every day. He's 13 years old, and I never know if this time will be the last time I'll see him. I wish I could fly over and hug him right now. Dogs are the most amazing creatures and it hurts so fucking much when they have to leave us. Strength to us both and to the little furry things that have brought us so many smiles.


Oh, oh honey.

Quinn A@twitter

Oh, I'm so sorry. Beautiful piece, but heartbreaking.


Agreed on seeing dogs everywhere. When my dog died it seemed every person on the street was walking a dog. I would go from smiling at the dog's stupid happy face to crying wishing I had mine back. I'm so sorry.


Thank you, this is so lovely.

The pets, how do they know? When I came home from my biopsy (Hodgkins lymphoma), my snooty, aloof, bad queen cat suddenly turned nursemaid. And stayed that way for the 9 months I was in treatment. Then one day, she went back to looking at me like I was dim, and I knew I was out of the woods. This was nearly 10 years ago. These days, she's only nice to me when she wants something or is punishing my husband (who she adores).


@datalass No idea, but they really do. My friend's dog is well known for being a hugger - if you're crying, he'll just walk over to you (no matter what he's doing, even if he's eating) until you hug him and stop crying. Animals are the best.


I'm so, so sorry.


Sad and beautiful. Kippy is so loved.


I cannot read this. WILL NOT CRY TODAY. Yet from just a glance I know I am glad it exists.


This: Unlike when I opted for my lumpectomy and signed all the permissions and releases, Kippy had no say in the fact that he was suddenly in pain, wearing that barbaric lampshade collar to keep him from pawing the stitches.

Is the saddest part of when your pets get sick.


@garli When my dog got sick in November last year, he just didn't understand it at all. He got so frustrated, and so uncertain, and it made me so sad I couldn't explain it to him. I was lucky that it proved to be contaminated food instead of something more serious, but it made me very aware of how scary his world can be.


Oh Kira. I'm so sorry. This story brought tears to my eyes.


I'm glad I read this while I'm home alone. The bond we share with our pets can be so special and life changing. Kippy will go peacefully without having to think all the crazy things we do and he will always be in your heart. So sorry.


oh, jeez--this was lovely. I'm so sorry to hear about Kippy, but I'm glad you have him in your life--& that you shared him with us.

Leah Klein@facebook

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring--it was peace.”


Oh Kira I'm so sorry. He looks like a sweet, wonderful dog. Tibetan dogs are some of the best dogs, my boyfriend's father has a Tibetan Spaniel who is pretty much the best lovable jerk you could ask for.


Kira, my heart broke into a million pieces while reading this. As a fellow puppy mama and former Cancerland resident, your story is so close to my heart. I'm sending boatloads of love and healing energy to you and Kippy.

Be But Little

My dog Rosie passed away from cancer this summer. She was perky up until the end, even swimming in the lake and barking at the neighbor's dog the weekend before her death. She was very sick, though, and in a lot of pain. I miss her every day. I still have her brother, but it's strange to go from two dogs to one. She had all these places in our house and yard, and I always expect to see her there, thumping her tail.


Oh, man. This is tough. This piece perfectly sums up why I get so emotional about dogs - they don't understand when bad things happen. I'm a wreck when my family dog even looks confused when she gets dropped off at the kennel for a weekend, because I can't explain that we're coming back. But even if they don't understand pain or mortality, the thing that I love about dogs is that they DO understand when people are good to them. You, Kira, and your family, are clearly good to Kip. He understands that, and you know it because he returned the favor when you needed it. So he might not understand the scary things, but he understands that. If there is anything fair in the universe at all, the afterlife for Kip will be a big fluffy couch with an armrest for his head and an endless supply of fortune cookies, so he'll have somewhere nice to be while he's waiting for you. But that doesn't make it any easier. I'll be thinking of him and you.

Ladies Who Punch

The first Post Secret I read that resonated with me was one in which a dog was looking through a window & we see the little beast from the back. The text read something to the effect of "You'll never know how much watching him for you helped through my cancer treatments" I tried looking for it on the interwebs to show it to you but couldn't find it.

My husband had our little boy on a walk when I read your piece & it had me in tears. Thank you this.


Oh, Kira. I'm so sorry. This post is really resonating with me, because we suddenly lost our five-year-old furry friend last week to lymphoma. He was sick for less than four days, so in some regards I'm glad to have missed the surgeries, cone of shames and look of confusion on his face.

I am jealous, however, of knowing that it would happen in advance and having the opportunity to say goodbye the way you are able to. Kip has clearly been an incredible companion for you and I'm glad that you are able to return the favor now.

Losing our dog has hit me with pain that I never knew possible. I always knew this process would be terrible, but I don't think I let myself comprehend the scope and intensity of the pain. I think a large part of that was the speed of how it all went - there was no time to process it.

Everyday is getting better. Cherish every moment you have with Kip and know that he is happy just to be near you. You have given him a wonderful life.

Manchester Tart

I lost my mum to cancer at Christmas. I've had some experience with the cheery optimist pink ribbon brigade and I'm glad to read other people who also think it's ok to say fuck that, I'm angry and sad and terrified and there's not a single thing in the whole of the hell of these last months that I can 'take comfort' in, and what's more I don't WANT to. Apart from mum's, and now my own dog shadow that is, my Fred, who is currently sprawled over one of my knees whilst I balance my laptop on the other. I keep dreaming that he dies and waking up sobbing, don't need too much analysis to know what that's all about.
So yeah, long winded way of saying that my heart is breaking for you, and for Kip, but thank you so much for writing this piece.

Minx Whatmore

Oh, puppy! I'm so sorry Kira, that is all so hard. A friend's dog passed away last year and I told her 9 year old daughter that it was ok to feel sad because my own dog passed away 10 years ago and all our family STILL miss her.

also, fuck enforced optimism. It's fine to feel good and focus on good things, but pretending everything is fine when it's not is not good for you. let out the bad feelings.


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