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A woman’s best friend

Laura A. Ball
Special to the DailyJoanne DeFluri with her dogs Cliff (right) and Jokonita. The part-time Cordillera resident stops by The Bookworm in Edwards Saturday from noon-2 p.m. to sign her book, "Cliff and I: My Dog's Journey Through Cancer and Beyond."
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Cliff has cancer.

The words echoed in Joanne DeFluri’s head as if on an evil merry-go-round.

She had known Cliff only three years, but their bond renounced linear time.



He was 5-years-old when he came to live with her. He would help ease her loneliness when her husband traveled, she thought. But the German Shepherd quickly became an endless source of unqualified love for DeFluri.

Cliff has cancer.



What would she do? Whatever she could. She would stop at nothing.

With death hanging so closely on the horizon, the worth of life shone as brightly as DeFluri’s determination to save him. His presence felt greater than his 106 pounds, even bigger than she.

Cliff has cancer.



DeFluri and her husband, Dick, had just bought their second home in Cordillera. They came out to get settled. A few days after, when her husband was brushing Cliff, he found a lump. “We should get this looked at,” he told her.

DeFluri agreed but thought nothing of it. A week later, Dr. Steve Warren of Steve’s Dog and Cat Repair in Edwards would tell them Cliff had anal sac adenocarcinoma. Dr. Warren performed surgery to remove the tumor and recommended they take him to Fort Collins’ Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, a pioneer in the field of animal cancer. DeFluri felt more comfortable taking Cliff back home to Pennsylvania to their vet in State College.

Cliff has cancer.

By chance, Deborah Smart, a recent graduate of CSU, had started working there. “She told me point blank that if I had the means to come back to Colorado that was Cliff’s best chance,” DeFluri said. “So I got back on the plane and came back out.”

She packed up her suburban with Cliff and her other German Shepherd, Jokonita, her mountain bike and anything else she might need. She didn’t know how long she would be there. She would stay in Fort Collins indefinitely while Cliff received treatment.

Cliff has cancer.

Dr. Stephen Withrow and Dr. Kim Selting started on the case. They decided another surgery was in order try and get clean margins, removing any cancer that may be left. Cliff would then start radiation on the area around the surgery site five days a week for four weeks straight.

DeFluri’s laptop became her “someone to talk to” and she would write about Cliff’s battle and her feelings while she sat in the waiting room. She wrote about the emotional upheaval of his second diagnosis of osteosarcoma, bone cancer; the chemotherapy that followed the radiation; feeding him wheatgrass she believed would help relieve some of the side effects from the chemo; utilizing alternative therapy such as acupuncture and energy-healing reiki.

Frequently, she e-mailed updates of Cliff’s progress to her family and friends, who started suggesting her gift in relating their struggles.

Cliff has cancer.

Never did DeFluri envision that she would write a book, she said. But one day, while riding her bike, she realized the potential of sharing the story.

It’s not something that you can forget or ignore. You have to embrace the darkness. She dove into her overwhelming fear and loss of control to find good.

She would use the good to increase awareness of the high rate of cancer in our animal companions, and to raise money for cancer research or for those who cannot afford medical expenses, as well as offer information in support to others who are on the same journey with their pets, she said.

DeFluri spent $20,000 on Cliff’s medical care alone. She understands not everyone has the same resources and encourages pet owners do whatever they can “spiritually, emotionally and financially” deal with, she said.

“It is really difficult to evaluate why someone has such deep attachments to their pets,” Dr. Warren said, who diagnoses about 150 dogs with cancer every year. “And it really is often times surprising that you didn’t pick up on a strong attachment, and Joanne is certainly nuts about her dogs. She lives for them.”

Cliff has cancer.

Cancer baffles DeFluri as much today as it did the day her dog was diagnosed with the disease.

“There’s just way too much of it and we don’t know why,” she said. “It’s baffling to understand the rate of cancer in both animals and humans, and especially in young people. I don’t have an answer for it.”

How does Cliff’s battle end? Only the book will tell, DeFluri said.

“The story is more about the journey and my attempt to prolong and improve the quality of Cliff’s life.”

Staff Writer Laura A. Ball can be reached 748-2939 or laball@vaildaily.com.

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