Dog provides comfort to Indiana cancer patient

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MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — Watching Joy Gerwe Johnson, especially when she is playing with her 2-year-old Irish setter Madison, it's hard to believe she is fighting to stay alive.

But like folks say, looks can deceive.

"I'm living my life," said the 36-year-old mental health counselor and cancer patient, while she cavorted with her beautiful red dog on the floor of her north side home. "It could go downhill at any time."

These days, she added, Madison is among her truest friends, a source of comfort and an antidote to the mental stress that can have a negative physical effect on a person, especially one whose health is already greatly compromised.

"We know that stress can do negative things, but we don't think of relaxation doing positive things for our health," Johnson told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1mIFiD2), recalling one time of panic when Madison came to the rescue. "I sat in there in the living room and just held her. ... It just took 10 minutes for me to put all my focus into something comforting and positive."

She also does yoga, sometimes even with Madison, and said having a dog helps convey a sense of normalcy to her troubled life.

This beneficial effect of our four-legged friends will be marked when Bark for Life, an official event of the American Cancer Society like the Relay for Life, is celebrated by cancer patients, their dogs and their friends from 9 a.m. to noon May 17 at Morrow's Meadow in Yorktown.

"It's an event that centers on the role of the canine companion," said Tara Whitehead, whose employer, Midwest Homes for Pets, which is a division of Midwest Metal Products, is hosting the event. There is an entry fee of $20 for your first dog, and $5 for each additional pooch. Human participants without a dog are $10.

"We hope we'll have 100 dogs," Whitehead added.

What became Johnson's unfortunate but intimate association with Bark for Life began in March 2011 when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lobular breast cancer, a deep, estrogen-fed, five-centimeter tumor that has metastasized to her bones and lymph nodes. Never feeling or suspecting a thing, it was only after her right nipple inverted that she suspected a problem.

"I didn't rush to the doctor because I felt so healthy," Johnson explained. "I had no other health issues, never have."

That month alone, though, she had 22 doctor appointments. Eventually her ovaries and fallopian tubes, which were full of cancer, were removed, though plans for a double mastectomy were canceled at the advice of Bryan Schneider, her physician at Indianapolis' Simon Cancer Center. The effect of all this was she went into surgical menopause at age 33.

"It instantly put 20-something years on my body," said Johnson, who is also a drummer, was in the all-girl rock band Killjoy Confetti when younger and still enjoys music, both playing and recording it.

These days, she is living with her disease, employing one medication after another, though her cancer is considered incurable and remission not possible.

"You try to keep it at bay," she said, adding that her philosophy of life now is, "live in the moment, enjoy each moment."

Ironically, she was also recently diagnosed with another form of cancer, melanoma, on her back. While this diagnosis might seem devastating to many people, at this point she barely worries about it, compared to the cancer she is already fighting.

While Madison is her trusted ally in this effort, the Irish setter is particularly important to Johnson now, she said, because her husband of 12 years recently moved out and is ending their marriage. The mental health counselor said while regrettable, leaving an ill mate is not uncommon and even has a name, "flee from death."

"I think he would have stayed with me if I went downhill fast and died," she said in a matter-of-fact manner, adding that she thinks more needs to be done to help "co-survivors" like her husband in cases such as hers. (Kyle Johnson had no comment when contacted by The Star Press.)

In any event, Johnson said she must have a caretaker, and so is moving to Portland, Ore., where she has family, a move she doesn't want to make.

"I feel like I'm forced to do it," she said, while Whitehead noted she isn't happy about her friend's move, either.

"We all love Joy," she said, sadly, "and we're sick that she has to leave."

That move, unfortunately, will keep Johnson and Madison from taking part in Bark for Life.

"We'd really like to be there," she said, petting her dog.

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Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com

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