After radiation treatments for testicular cancer, Mike Wilson's family breathed a sigh of relief when told he was in remission Jan. 31, 2003. Wife Jody and his three children, Tabatha, 15, Derek, 9, and Kayla, 7, were ready to continue with life, happy the nightmare was over.
But Mike wasn't.
The emotional toll of "fighting the good fight" was wearing him down. Thoughts of "what if" crept into his mind as Mike began to distance himself from those he loved the most.
"I felt that if the cancer was going to take me, I didn't want the people around me to be hurt," Mike said, explaining that later he discovered it was the worst thing to do. "Family wants to be near you. As a survivor you need that, but it's hard to accept."
As Mike's first remission anniversary drew near in 2004, he was still burdened with a heavy heart. The "cancer taboo" had not left his thoughts. Even the opportunity for early retirement from his job in St. Louis and moving back home to Brazil did not lift his spirits.
"The kids and I wanted to surprise him with a special gift for the anniversary," Jody said, explaining it needed to represent life, hoping it would bring Mike out of his slump.
Knowing Mike was a dog lover and that animals are used in therapy, an aunt suggested adopting one just for him. The family already had a black lab named Max, but there was room in their hearts for one more.
"So I began searching various shelters of rescue organizations for the perfect dog," Jody said. "We wanted one that had faced death as well, and survived."
While searching the Web site, Stray Rescue of St. Louis, they found the perfect match.
A male beagle/sharpee mix had been rescued from the streets of East St. Louis. Suffering from mange, a torn ear and a damaged eye, the dog had ironically undergone treatment for heartworms at the same time Mike went through his cancer treatments.
Heartworm treatment involves an arsenic-based medication given intravenously to kill the parasites over a two-month period. Death from the medication or the shock of parasites being cleansed from the system can happen at any time as animals experience extreme fatigue and discomfort much like that of cancer patients in chemotherapy.
But, nursed back to health in a foster home, the family met Floyd and fell in love with the feisty little dog. The adoption process was started, but due to a needed eye surgery and neutering, they had to wait for Floyd's arrival.
Everyone was excited. Except Mike.
"Mike was dealing with life," Jody said, explaining it was made very clear from the beginning that he wasn't open to the idea like the rest of the family and definitely did not want the dog in the house.
But a phone call soon changed all that.
"My heart just sank," Jody said, explaining that Floyd had been diagnosed with the same disease Mike had just defeated, testicular cancer. "Our gift of life was now facing death as well."
Certain that Mike would refuse to complete the adoption, Jody called her husband at work to break the news. After a long dreaded pause, Mike spoke to his wife: "How soon can we get him?"
The family got Floyd that very week.
After the first chemo treatment, Mike carried the dog to the couple's bedroom and laid him softly on their bed.
"You sleep here tonight, buddy. Daddy will sleep in the chair," Jody said, recalling her husband's gentle words. "And Mike sat in a chair next to our bed watching Floyd all night."
As the treatments continued, Mike took care of Floyd; carrying the dog from place to place and hand feeding him with slivers of food and sips of water.
When Floyd would lay listless for hours on the floor in the dark, Mike was right there on the floor next to the dog, to comfort him.
It was through Floyd's battle with cancer that Mike pulled out of his emotional slump.
"The cancer bonded us," Mike said, explaining that this is his second remission anniversary and Floyd's six-month anniversary. "He's gone through what I have. We survived it together. Floyd's always with me."
Walking through the neighborhood, playing with squeaky toys or wrestling with the dogs is where Mike can be found after he finishes work at Lynn's Pharmacy. Spending time with "the boys" is a simple pleasure he enjoys every day.
"A deeper appreciation of life and a more spiritual connection with people radiates from him," Jody said, happy to give credit where it is due. "It is truly amazing the way God brought us all together. Sometimes the best medicine comes with four paws."