TAMPA — Even at about 10 years and 70 pounds, Holly the golden retriever was all puppy around squirrels, tennis balls and treats.
But when it came to her work with patients at Moffitt Cancer Center, she was all business.
She'd burrow her soft, furry face into every lap that would have her, and nestle into all the arms that hugged her. Plume-like tail swishing, she'd leave behind big smiles, even if they were hidden by surgical masks worn to protect from human — not canine — infections.
For three years, nearly every Thursday found Holly and her owner, Kelly Pavone, at work in the pet therapy program. Along with Ralfie the expertly coiffured poodle, Orchid and Dooley the retired greyhounds and Macie the deaf black lab, Holly patrolled the first-floor clinic waiting area. While the dogs are there, nerves, stress and boredom evaporate amid smiles, pats and shared stories of beloved pets.
"Driving over in the car today, I said, 'I hope the doggies are there,' '' recalled Kendra Callahan on Thursday. Every year, the Chicago woman accompanies her mother, a breast cancer survivor, for her checkup at Moffitt. Callahan pulled out her cellphone to show off a photo from last year's visit. There was Holly, standing next to Callahan's mom, Jeanne Taylor.
It would be Taylor's final photo with Holly, who on Wednesday succumbed to a cancer remarkably similar to her human friend's. But before Holly died, she left a legacy that could help cancer patients in a way Pavone never imagined when the golden retriever first entered her life.
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Back in 2009, Holly was found dirty, hungry and alone, wandering the streets of Titusville. After three weeks in the county shelter, she was picked up by Golden Retriever Rescue of Mid-Florida.
The group matched her with Pavone, who quickly saw that even by retriever standards, Holly was voracious.
"I think she ate as much as she did because of the time she spent on the streets always looking for food," said Pavone, 45, a Delta Airlines customer service agent who lives in Tampa. Pavone learned of the good that dogs can do for patients when her dad was at Bay Pines VA Medical Center for open heart surgery, and she met a therapy dog there.
"I just knew Holly would make a wonderful therapy dog,'' Pavone said of her happy, gentle pet. "We chose Moffitt to honor my grandmother, who died of bone cancer.''
During one Moffitt visit, Holly boldly plucked a package of graham crackers from a woman's purse and trotted off to devour them. Pavone smiled wistfully at the memory. "She was so naughty you couldn't help but love her."
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In June, Pavone saw the first sign of trouble for Holly.
"I noticed a pea-sized lump on her stomach near one of her nipples and took her to the vet to have it checked out," she said.
Holly was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Because it had spread to her lungs, standard chemotherapy and radiation would do little good. The vet told Pavone that Holly would likely die within 90 days.
Hearing of a research program that was treating a horse with melanoma, Pavone saw hope. She tracked down Morphogenesis, the Tampa medical research firm in charge of the project, and pleaded with them to take Holly.
CEO Patricia Lawman explained that testing therapies in animals, especially dogs, helps advance cancer research because of the many similarities in how humans and canines develop cancer and respond to treatment. The hope is to develop targeted therapies that fight cancer cells without harming healthy tissue, sidestepping harsh side effects that often accompany chemotherapy and radiation. "All our work in dogs is directly translatable to supporting human study," Lawman said.
A therapy known as ImmuneFx is headed for human clinical trials in the fall. It's not a drug, but a DNA-based treatment that teaches the body's immune system to recognize and attack only cancer cells. Holly received eight rounds of the treatment and advanced to the next generation of the therapy, made from some of her own tumor cells.
Pavone credits the therapy for the extra time she had with Holly, and for the quality of that time. "She was given 90 days and lived seven months," said Pavone. "She never had side effects, was never sick while on it. She was herself until the last couple of weeks."
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Earlier this month, Holly started having seizures. Her soft body would grow rigid, foam bubbled around her mouth, sometimes she'd even collapse. Veterinarian James Barrie said it could have been due to a brain tumor, through it would require testing under anesthesia — which would likely have killed Holly — to be certain.
At first, Holly shook off the seizures. Then she lost interest in tennis balls and treats. Last week, she refused food altogether and showed signs of pain. Wednesday, Pavone agreed to have Holly euthanized.
"It was time, and in her own way she told me so," said Pavone.
The therapy that Holly received will be tried in a small group of humans with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The study, to be conducted at the University of Nebraska, is a phase 1 clinical trial, primarily designed to determine whether it is safe for humans. But Lawman said researchers will also report whether patients respond to the therapy, helping determine whether it merits further investigation.
"This research (with Holly) closes the circle on how she helped patients in a direct way,'' Lawman said. "Now all the information gained from her cancer treatment will help us develop this therapy for humans.''
Irene Maher can be reached at [email protected]