How my pets helped me through cancer

In 2014, Petplan customer Fee Sharples was shocked to discover she had Stage 4 breast cancer. She tells us how her pets have helped her through difficult times, and have inspired her to launch a very special fundraising event.

Seven years ago retired nurse, mother and grandmother Fee Sharples was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite having no symptoms, the 65-year-old from Hardingham in Norfolk was told that she was in Stage 4 of the disease.

The news, understandably, came as a huge shock to both Fee and her family. But since that time, Fee’s medical understanding and relentless determination has seen her live every day to its fullest. We caught up with Fee to find out more about how life has changed in the past seven years, and how her love of her dogs has inspired her to launch a special canine fundraising event supported by a host of celebrities.

Living with cancer

‘Being a nurse, I've seen over the years how important communication is,’ says Fee. ‘If people hide an illness like cancer from their families, the shock is terrible. I tried to keep it from my children in the beginning, because as a mother it doesn’t matter how old your children are, you want to protect them. But now we talk about everything.’

Fee adds: ‘We all deal with this diagnosis in different ways and there is no “right” way. However, we need to talk about our cancer, which some people find really hard. The same applies to death and dying.’

‘Dogs are a constant in my life’

Fee has had dogs all her life, saying, ‘I think children and dogs should grow up together. I’ve never not had a dog.’ Even when living abroad as part of a Forces family, Fee made sure a four-legged companion was always around. ‘Dogs make us laugh, they offer unconditional love and constant companionship,’ she says.

Fee is a customer of Petplan and has two dogs – Inca, a three-year-old Black Labrador Retriever, and Pickle, a 12-year-old Norfolk Terrier. Even when her husband, John, is away the house is never quiet. ‘Your dog is dependent on you for walks, food and so much more,’ says Fee. ‘You’ve got to pull yourself together.’

Inca, she says, is very protective of her. ‘She clearly knows that something is wrong, and she’s with me the whole time. Over Covid-19, I’ve been socially distancing and my dogs have been the one constant.’

She goes on to say that ‘Inca is very perceptive and can pick up on changes in my mood that people may miss. Where I go, she goes. Dogs can understand things that humans don’t, and they’re like a kind of therapy in that sense.’

Fee adds that ‘dogs have played a huge part in my life, and I couldn’t imagine life without them’. Dogs are also the inspiration behind Fee’s impressive fundraising efforts.

Focus on fundraising

In 2009, Fee came up with the idea of holding ‘Norfolk Dog Days’ to help raise money for the charity Help for Heroes. The first event was so successful that they ran another in 2010. They smashed their original fundraising targets, with the two events raising a combined total of £217,000.

Through separate events, Fee raised another £53,000 for Veterans Norfolk and has so far raised £11,000 for Cancer Research UK (CRUK).

Fee says: ‘Fundraising is something I enjoy doing. I’m not very good at sitting about, so it fills my time and takes my mind off everything else.’

Volunteers are vital to success

Fee says that there’s no way her projects could have raised such impressive amounts of money without the help of many volunteers, who are often her friends’ children when they’re home from university. Fee says: ‘Fundraising has to be fun, otherwise there’s no point doing it.’

While Covid-19 may have put a dampener on in-person fundraising events, Fee hasn’t stopped thinking of more innovative ways to raise money.

The next big project

One morning, in the small hours, Fee had a lightbulb moment. She came up with the idea of launching a new fundraiser called ‘Britain’s Next Top Dog 2021’.

Over lockdown, charities like Cancer Research UK have lost many opportunities to run in-person events, which has dramatically affected their funding for vital research. So what about boosting those funds with an online, national dog show? Fee’s original idea, she says, has ‘snowballed’ and there’s now a line-up of celebrities to judge the individual classes, a social media manager, website designer and, most importantly, Fee’s son Edward and daughter-in-law Victoria, who are now running the campaign, and a soon-to-be-launched website.

Fee says: ‘With the help of Petplan, all the costs are covered, so 100% of the money we raise will be going to charity. Over Covid-19, the support many of us get from our dogs has become a lifeline, and Britain's Next Top Dog 2021 is going to be a great way to celebrate all the ways that dogs add laughter and fun to our lives.

‘Life is all about making memories,’ adds Fee. ‘You just have to grab the moment. Live every day with no regrets.’

For more information on how to enter your dog, head over to the Britain’s Next Top Dog 2021 website and help raise vital funds for CRUK while having fun at the same time.

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