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Horses Helping Heal Cancer Patients and Survivors

Explaining St. Mary's "Horse Partners" Program

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Cancer patients have quite the battle ahead of them, and one local partnership provides a unique kind of therapy to help them along the way.

When Sue Johnson walked into St. Mary's Medical Center on Wednesday, a mini-horse named Cora was there to greet her. Johnson was thrilled to see the four-legged friend on the first day of her chemotherapy treatment. "I had Ovarian Cancer, which is very unusual for someone my age, but that's the way it goes. I just finished all my treatments over here in radiation, and now I start chemo," said Johnson, who has lived in Grand Junction since 1981.

Johnson said she has witnessed the effect an animal can have on a person. "We had a daughter who passed away, many years later, but primarily because of cancer she'd had earlier. And when they brought the dogs in, her little hand would go up, she was semi-comatose, but it was wonderful to see how she looked," said Johnson.

Because of the therapeutic qualities of an animal, St. Mary's Medical Center has embarked on a program called "Horse Partners." Groups of cancer patients or survivors get together once a month to meet with the horses, one of which is Cora, to help them heal. "They can reflect on it, they can talk about it, they can air thoughts to the horses that they've never spoken out loud before to anyone," said Joseph Breman, one of the people who helped make this program possible.

Not only do the horses help, but having a group of people who understand what cancer is like provides a support system. "Everybody there is a cancer survivor, so we don't have really have to explain everything, everyone gets it. And so to be able to connect with people, whether you're in treatment and don't have hair, or several years out and your hair's grown back and you're feeling good, having shared cancer is something that you have in common. And so that just levels the playing field for everybody and allows a deeper healing to take place," said Debra Hesse, the oncology support services supervisor for St. Mary's Medical Center.

Johnson said she will most likely sign up for the program, and will definitely continue her fight against cancer. "Part of it is I remember my daughter's fight, but part of it, as my husband said it the other day, my family isn't ready to let go of me yet, and I'm not ready to let go of them," said Johnson.

The first session of this year will take place on April 26 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. There is a $10 registration fee, and St. Mary's Survivorship Program covers the rest of the cost. Anywhere from 10-12 cancer patients or survivors can enroll in a session. The sessions will be on the last Thursday of the month.

To register, call (970)210-3237 or email bloom@adriannewagner.com. Or, you can call Hesse from St. Mary's at (970)298-2351.

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