Pet feature: Woman helps those who can’t afford canine cancer treatment

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Pam Storto’s golden retriever, Sierra, was just 3 1/2 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. It was lymphoma, a particularly virulent form of the disease, and the diagnosis wasn’t good. Without treatment, she was given five weeks to live. With it, five months. 

Storto was devastated.

“Sierra was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t even think I knew what life was until she came into my life. I was a different person; I was selfish,” Storto said.

Even as she drove two hours to a canine cancer specialist every week, Storto couldn’t help thinking about all the other dog owners out there who couldn’t afford to mount a fight. Storto vowed to help those who weren’t as fortunate.  

Just before Sierra died, Storto helped start the nonprofit group Canine Cancer Awareness. Since it began in 2003, the organization has given up to $2,000 in treatment grants to 71 dog owners and has profiled more than 100 dogs on its website, allowing sympathetic sponsors to help pay for treatment individually. It also facilitates a supplement swap, allowing grieving dog owners to give their pet’s leftover health supplements to others in need. 

Although Storto started Canine Cancer Awareness with two friends who also lost their dogs to cancer, she now runs the organization on her own from her Litchfield home, with the help of a handful of out-of-state board members.

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“I’ll do this until I die,” Storto said.

Storto got Sierra as a puppy, a fluffy ball of reddish fur who sat apart from her littermates. Although Storto was working as a police officer in Maryland at the time, she was painfully shy, introverted and fearful. Sierra, it turned out, wasn’t.

“She was this little ball of fire,” Storto said.

The two of them were close. Sierra’s cancer diagnosis brought them closer.

“The diagnosis came March 4 — I’ll never forget that date — 2002. That’s the day everything changed. From that day on we had a connection that you couldn’t break,” Storto said. “That day on, Sierra turned to me and wouldn’t leave my side. For 13 months we were together all the time. She just taught me so much. She taught me not to be afraid of death.” 

They had four-and-a-half years together, far short of the golden retriever’s average 10- to 15-year lifespan. After Sierra died, Storto retired from the police department and moved to Maine to start life over. She’d met Mainers Linda Desrosier and Mary Wegrzyn on an online canine cancer support group. Together they worked on Canine Cancer Awareness.    

In those early days they funded Canine Cancer Awareness by selling handmade items on CafePress.com, selling Canine Cancer Awareness pins and hats, and holding fundraisers.  Today, the group is funded through donations, an online store, CafePress sales and the sale of calendars that feature some of the dogs that Canine Cancer Awareness has helped.

Earlier this year, the program ran out of money and was forced to stop offering pet-owner grants for a couple of months. It recently started again.

The group originally gave out up to $2,000 per pet owner, but demand quickly outpaced funding. Grants now max out at $1,000. Individual sponsorships don’t count toward that maximum.

A dog owner must apply for help from Canine Cancer Awareness. The program then contacts the dog’s veterinarian to confirm diagnosis and treatment. If the application is approved by the board, the money is sent directly to the veterinarian. The program pays for chemotherapy,  medication and holistic care, among other treatments.

Some Canine Cancer Awareness dogs have lived only months, even with treatment. Others have lived years, even with the most dire diagnosis. For Storto, it isn’t about curing cancer but giving dogs a good quality of life.

“I don’t think there’s a cure for cancer. It’s not curable, but it’s livable,” she said.

Storto now has two dogs, one of them in remission from cancer. Storto still thinks of the last year she had with Sierra — a year she wouldn’t have had without treatment.

“What we really fantasize about is to never say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t help you, we don’t have the funds,'” Storto said. “If they’re healthy enough and we can give them a good quality of life so they can live with cancer, that’s our goal.”

Have an idea for a pet feature? Contact Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or e-mail her at ltice@sunjournal.com

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