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Quebec cancer patient says he was forced to leave Relay For Life event over animal companion

Alec Martel, 21, sits with his dog, Lilah. She was a gift after he was diagnosed with leukemia. Alec Martel

The family of a South Shore man with cancer say they are upset and confused after they had no choice but to leave a Relay For Life event because of their small dog.

“I was just kind of baffled,” Alec Martel said.

“This walk was supposed to be for me since I’m battling cancer and they’re asking me to leave.”

The community fundraising event marked a first for 21-year-old Martel, who was diagnosed with leukemia in March 2017.

After a long and exhausting year marked by intensive rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, he was excited to participate alongside his parents and his small dog.

READ MORE: West Island Palliative Care Residence gets new emotional support puppy

“Last year I wasn’t actually able to do this cancer walk and it kind of hurt me because at 21 and not able to walk around the street was hurtful,” he said. “So a year later I kind of feel like it’s an accomplishment.”

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The family also brought Lilah, their miniature poodle mix, to the event because she has been a source of comfort over the past year.

While Lilah does not have official therapy dog status, Martel said she has always been there for him after he received her following a hospital stay last May.

“I go play ball with her every day. I share my food with her. She’s my companion.”

There was no indication that the outdoor event — held at the Brossard’s Dix-30 shopping centre where all dogs are allowed — was off-limits to animals at all.

“We got halfway done the walk and a volunteer came up to us and said that the dog would have to leave because they are not allowed here,” Martel said.

Alec Martel says his miniature poodle mix is always there for him. Alec Martel

Martel said he was told that he could keep his animal companion in his arms — but only for a short period of time.

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After the family went to the donation centre, another person approached them and warned Lilah was not allowed to be there.

“He runs up to me, puts his two hands on my shoulders and stops me and says ‘No dogs allowed here. She has to leave,'” he said.

“And basically if my dog leaves, I have to leave too. I’m not going to let my dog run away.”

The family decided to leave but said they weren’t informed as to why Lilah was not allowed at the event.

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‘This shouldn’t have happened,’ says Canadian Cancer Society

The family has reached out to the Canadian Cancer Society, the charitable organization behind the event, for an explanation.

André Beaulieu, a spokesperson for the Canadian Cancer Society, told Global News there was a misunderstanding and that all dogs were allowed at the event in Brossard.

Therapy and service dogs are always allowed to attend the Relay For Life, he said, but allowing all dogs depends on where the event is held. For example, if the event is held in a public park where dogs are not allowed, that has to be respected.

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Alec Martel says his dog is his best friend.
Alec Martel says his dog is his best friend.

Beaulieu said Martel and his family should have been allowed to walk with their dog.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” he said.

Calls for change

While Lilah does not have therapy dog status, Martel said his dog is like a sibling and has helped him cope with the isolation that comes with cancer.

Leukemia has forced him to stop working and attending Concordia University because it is too dangerous for him to be around so many people at once — so Lilah has provided him comfort as his life remains on hold.

READ MORE: Dogs pick up on cues to comfort the dying and the grieving, experts say

“She’s very calm and always there for me,” he said.

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Martel and his family are calling for change, saying all dogs belonging to cancer patients and survivors should always be allowed at Relay for Life events — regardless of where they are held.

“Their dog is their family and they help them throughout this whole process so walking with their best friend is something that should be promoted,” Martel said.

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