Rays of Resilience

Her Goal Was To Beat Cancer So She Could Adopt A Dog. Now They Both Help Others Get Well.

LeeAnn was having her third round of chemo, and things were not going well. She had an aggressive form of breast cancer, and she’d chosen an aggressive treatment plan. But the chemo made her feel terrible, and she was dealing with crushing anxiety.

“I was at the point where I was ready to take the needle out of my arm and say, ‘That’s it. I can’t do this anymore.’”

Then Carolyn and Monster walked in.

Monster is a little Havanese therapy dog who proudly visits the infusion room at the hospital at University of California, Irvine, with his human, Carolyn Bivens. That day, Monster crawled onto LeeAnn’s bed and comforted her. He calmed her down and helped her make it through.

Left: Carolyn and Monster (Courtesy Carolyn Bivens) Right: LeeAnn, Carolyn, and Monster (Courtesy LeeAnn Brill)

While Monster cuddled on her bed, Carolyn chatted with LeeAnn. Carolyn was comfortable in the infusion room, and she was no stranger to the misery of breast cancer.

Carolyn had worked her entire life so that she could retire in beautiful Newport Beach, California. She’d worked with Xerox, helped found USA Today, been president of a media company, and even ran the ladies professional golf association for four years. In 2011, she and her husband Bill were finally ready to leave Los Angeles behind and settle down on the beach.

But the day after the moving van dropped of the last of their boxes, Carolyn found a lump in her breast.

After five hours at the doctor’s office, the news wasn’t good. Carolyn had breast cancer, but the doctor didn’t know yet how far it had progressed or even if it was in one or both breasts.

Photo: Monster comforting patients (Courtesy Carolyn Bivens)

Now Carolyn had a new dream: get well enough so that she could adopt a dog.

She wanted to adopt a Havanese. Her last dog had passed away just before she and her husband had left Los Angeles, and she wanted to adopt a small dog that would enjoy her new beachy lifestyle. She was set on adopting a dog from a rescue, even if it meant driving halfway across the country.

But her cancer diagnosis put adoption plans on hold.

Carolyn’s test results came back showing that the cancer was only on one side of her body. She would have surgery a few weeks later. After surgery, doctors would find that the cancer had progressed to her lymph nodes, and she’d have to have radiation.

Photo: Monster and Carolyn on the beach (Courtesy Carolyn Bivens)

Radiation “isn’t the most horrible thing in the world,” according to Carolyn, but it irritated her rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Radiation set off one of her worst flare ups in the 10 years since she’d been diagnosed with RA. Her joints swelled horribly. At one point she could barely walk. Some of the preventative cancer medication she was on contributed to the pain in her joints.

“So many days before I got Monster there wasn’t a reason that I had to get out of bed. But once I got Monster, he needed to be taken out and he needed to be walked… There’s no doubt that getting Monster helped me recover faster than I would have otherwise.”

But finding him wasn’t easy. Carolyn and Bill had applied and been turned down for a couple of dogs they’d tried to adopt. “I think they thought my husband and I were too old. It was a stunning experience,” Carolyn said.

Left: Monster on the beach (Courtesy Carolyn Bivens) Right: LeeAnn and Monster (Courtesy LeeAnn Brill)

She kept looking and watching the rescue sites. One morning she saw a picture come up for a Havenese available at a vet in Northern California—six hours away. The picture was fuzzy, and when she called the vet he told her that he thought the dog had been turned in by a breeder because of congenital issues.

Carolyn and Bill drove six hours to go see the dog. She found the six-month-old pup with his fur in dreadlocks. “He had the dullest eyes I’d ever seen in my life,” she said. The little dog was hesitant to trust Carolyn, but she held him in her arms all the way back to Newport.

“He’s such a cute little monster,” Bill said as they drove home, and so that’s what they called him.

Later, a trip to the vet revealed that Monster’s spine had been broken when he was a puppy. His tail would never curl into the classic Havanese tail. “He didn’t know how to be a puppy. He didn’t know how to be a dog,” Carolyn said. “I didn’t know if he had a voice for weeks. Now I’m sorry I encouraged him to use it!”

Photo: Monster just after his adoption (Courtesy Carolyn Bivens)

As Monster slowly got more comfortable with Carolyn, she found that he loved training. She knew that she wanted to give back after she’d gone through cancer, and since Monster had helped her recover, she knew he could help others. So they began training to become pet therapy volunteers.

Monster excelled. He passed his initial training with flying colors and went on to earn a Canine Good Citizen Award. He learned to deal with loud noises and work in tiny hallways. He had to prove he wouldn’t be spooked—even by people banging on aluminum trash can lids. If he was going to work in a hospital someday, he had to be ready for all types of chaos.

After Monster’s training was complete, he and Carolyn found a home volunteering in the infusion room at the cancer center at the University of California in Irvine. “Volunteers don’t always want to go there, but we were perfectly comfortable there. Because he’s a small dog, he’s able to sit in peoples laps during chemo.”

Photo: Monster after earning therapy certification and Canine Good Citizen Badge (Courtesy Carolyn Bivens)

That’s where they met LeeAnn. “I call him my special guy,” LeeAnn said, talking about Monster. She says that the two of them had an instant connection. “It helps so much to have these pets, and it was something that I looked forward to every week. When Carolyn came we started to speak and she told me her story of cancer, and she became an inspiration and a dear friend of mine.”

Monster and Carolyn were there for LeeAnn through three years of breast cancer treatment, and today they’re breast cancer survivors, friends, and Monster’s biggest fans. (Read LeeAnn’s story here.)

When Carolyn and Monster are not helping cancer patients, they spend their time hanging out with Monster’s new sister, Latte. The three of them walk the beach twice a day, and a day is not complete unless their feet have been in the sand. “You cannot possibly get through a day and not laugh. They make you laugh. They make you happy,” Carolyn said

Photo: Monster and Latte (Courtesy Carolyn Bivens)

Carolyn’s new goal is to take one day at a time and enjoy what each day brings. Her dogs help when they remind her that she’s never too busy play with them. “Much more time is spent in gratitude now than is spent in planning,” she said.

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