Thursday 17 January 2019

'The presence of the donkeys really helps' - How these gentle creatures help young cancer survivors

Photo: The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast
Photo: The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast
Leighann Hickinson and Annaliese Laffan take part in the programme. Photo: The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast

Allan Preston

Two cancer survivors have said that working with donkeys has helped immensely with their emotional recovery.

Annaliese Laffan (20) and Leighann Hickinson (22) took part in a nine-week pilot scheme at The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast.

Run in partnership with CLIC Sargent, it's hoped the scheme can help young cancer survivors to develop critical life skills and process their experiences after fighting the disease.

Ms Laffan said spending time with the donkeys had helped her to relax and talk about difficult issues.

She was convinced to join the pilot after facing cancer treatment for the second time.

"At first I didn't want to do it," she explained.

"I didn't know how it would work, and I was also worried about getting emotional. I had been pressing a lot down inside and it worried me to let it out."

She added: "You work with these calming animals and we would talk about our experiences and how we felt. Before you know it, you are talking about your feelings in a way you haven't expected. It was a very emotional experience."

Ms Hickinson was diagnosed when she was 20 after developing a weakness in her right side.

Doctors later found a malignant brain tumour that required surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. "I think people need more emotional support when they finish treatment and there's time for it to hit home," she said.

On her time with the donkeys, she added: "It just gave us a way to distract ourselves with the animals. They help you to relax and to talk about things. I ended up talking about so much. It felt good to talk about these things and this really helped.

"The presence of the donkeys really helps in a way that is hard to explain - you understand when you do it."

Simon Darby, from CLIC Sargent, said: "As the weeks went on I experienced goose-bump moments where the young people were talking about issues that many cancer survivors would struggle with years after treatment."

The charity's 'hidden costs' report last year highlighted the emotional impact of cancer on young patients, with 70% saying they experienced depression during treatment, and 42% saying they endured panic attacks.

Caron Whaley, director of donkey-assisted therapy at The Donkey Sanctuary, said: "Our staff facilitate the programme, but donkeys do the work.

"Vulnerable children and adults learn from their physical and emotional experience with these exceptional creatures."

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