Among the numerous patients who overcome cancer, some travel the road to recovery with four-footed friends by their side.

Such partnerships are at the heart of Napa Valley Bark for Life, the annual gathering of pets and their cancer-surviving owners. On Sunday, the celebration returned to Napa’s Kennedy Park for a fourth year, raising money for the American Cancer Society – and, participants hope, raising the profile of the dogs and other animals that accompany them through sickness or health.

Bark for Life events in Napa and elsewhere are spin-offs of the society’s signature Relay for Life fundraising event and, organizers said, a gesture of thanks for the support offered to cancer patients – human or otherwise.

“The original idea, at first, was that pets get cancer as well,” said Stacy Flathers, co-captain of Napa Valley Bark for Life, which debuted in 2016. “But the bigger piece is that sometimes, when a human is going through cancer, the best companion is their dog, so this is to honor them.”

Such friendships can last for years after a patient recovers. “A lot of dogs are basically our caregivers and support, and I think it’s great that we validate that,” said Toni Heitman of Napa, a 14-year cancer survivor who left her rescue dog Ozzie at home only because “he barks at everything!”

The bond also has extended deep into post-recovery life for Kim Williams, a festival spectator who has been cancer-free for nine years.

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“He’s my therapy dog, that’s for sure,” she said of Napoleon, the caramel-white Pomeranian that accompanied her to Bark for Live. After surgery for a cancer when “I was supposed to be dead,” she recalled, she acquired the dog to replace a pet cat that had disappeared during her recovery.

“I like to say he’s the only reason I’m still alive,” said Williams, now the manager at her family’s Williams Chiropractic Clinic in Napa. “Having that companion reminds you what you’re here for.”

Among the vendors of pet treats, pet care products and other wares at the Napa festival was one booth staffed by members of Loving Animals Providing Smiles, a volunteer-run nonprofit that supplies animal therapy teams to hospitals, retirement homes and care centers.

One of the staff members, Nancy Large, greeted passers-by while stroking the black-and-white fur of Roxy, a 10-year-old English springer spaniel that meets patients through the LAPS program. Canines like Roxy, she said, can comfort not only patients during and after their treatment but their loved ones as well, especially when the rigors of cancer therapy end patients back to the hospital for blood transfusions and other treatment.

“I consider it our responsibility to visit and comfort the families as much as the patients,” said Large, who has worked at Sonoma Valley Hospital for 25 years. “Patients enjoy them, but they tire easily. But it’s very soothing to their families who are in a stressful, emotional situation.”

Napa’s Bark for Life had raised $2,217 for the American Cancer Society as of Sunday afternoon, according to Heather DeSplinter, an organizer of the event. Overall, the American Cancer Society’s Napa branch raised $63,257 over the past 12 months, she said.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.