Arlene Weintraub / ECW Press / 240 pages

Dogs are afflicted with many of the same cancers as people. As with people, the causes are little understood and therapy can be frustratingly ineffective. Yet, there is hope. Lessons learned from veterinarians treating dogs with cancer are giving physicians new insights into treating cancer in people, and vice versa. This concept, termed comparative oncology, is explored in Arlene Weintraub’s thoughtful and well-researched book, Heal: The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures. Through her emotional accounts of dogs with cancer, interwoven with the equally poignant story of her own sister’s death from cancer, the reader learns of the many advances that are being brought about by physicians and veterinarians working together on a common goal: more effective cancer therapies.

As Weintraub explains, cancer is not a monolithic entity, rather it is incredibly diverse and must be treated in many different ways. Also, cancer that naturally occurs in a dog in an ever-changing environment is vastly different from cancer artificially induced in a rodent (the most common animals used for cancer research) living in a highly controlled laboratory.

Each dog’s story is told with clarity and charm, so that we understand at least some of their perspective as they go from a state of frolicking health to debilitating disease and sometimes back again. Yet, Weintraub doesn’t just give us the dog’s eye view. The people in Heal are as compelling as the dogs, as they go to such great lengths to treat beloved canine family members. Their caring and dedication are what makes the cancer advances possible. They notice and report details that initially seem so minor, but later become significant findings. They are aware of the smallest changes in the health and well-being of their dogs and will do whatever they can to help them, until they can no longer help. Their experiences are so different, yet they all share a common thread: they want to help their dogs and they want to help people.

It isn’t just about pioneering therapies, though. Weintraub introduces us to dogs like McBaine and Foster, who are learning to sniff out the presence of cancer, with success rates equivalent to chemical sensors. As scientists learn how the dogs detect cancer, they are building devices that attempt to mimic the dogs’ abilities.

Heal is a short and powerful book. Each dog’s story can stand alone, yet when they are woven together, they form a compelling narrative. When we learn how to detect and treat cancer as it develops in our companion animals, we come one step closer to a cure in people, as well.