November 28, 2020

Storytellers: Vet, service dog both experience cancer diagnosis

By haziqbinarif

Ellie Wagley calls Banjo her best friend. It’s not hard to see why that’s true.

DENVER — The world can be a random place. But every now and then, you run into something you know was meant to be.

Ellie Wagley has a best friend. She calls him her “dude.”

“I love you. Yessir. I love you,” Ellie Wagley whispered to her dog, Banjo, as they played in Washington Park. 

Banjo is 93 pounds of American Pitbull Terrier, ready to wrestle – or just slobber. 

“You’re a good boy,” she told him. 

The laughs come easy now. But it’s during the times when smiles are hard to find that you realize Wagley and Banjo are more alike than most.

In 2008, Wagley deployed to Afghanistan as a medic with the U.S. Army. When she came home 11 months later, she soon traded field hospitals for consultations with cancer doctors.

“He was gifted to me by another veteran, a Vietnam veteran,” Wagley said. “I was diagnosed with stage 3A breast cancer. I was 27 years old. I didn’t have anyone else in my family who had been through that. I remember one day I knew for sure that it was my last day. I knew in my soul that I wasn’t going to wake up the next morning. I called my grandma and told her goodbye.”

She was already battling the nightmares and anxiety that came with her decade-old tour in Afghanistan. Cancer left her fighting again. 

She trained him to be a service dog, helping her get through tough days of treatment and sleepless nights thinking of the past.

“I couldn’t even carry him home. He was 6 pounds and I was only allowed to carry 5 [pounds],” Wagley said. “He has helped me through so much, I can’t even qualify it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Wagley fought. And she continues to fight today. 

So far, she’s winning, but she and Banjo are in the middle of something new.

This time the diagnosis came for Banjo. Doctors gave him a year to live.

“I just can’t imagine not trying, the way that he’s tried with me — to just give him the best possible chance,” Wagley said. “Thinking about him getting cancer, who better to take care of him than somebody who’s been through it? Who better to know what he’s going through than somebody who’s been on the exact same medications? Knowing that he was going to be on that drug, I could hardly take it. I had to talk to the vet so much and ask, ‘What is he going to experience. Is it going to be like what happened to me?'”

Now it’s Banjo’s turn to fight, a fight he’s already helped Wagley get through. A fight in which Wagley is now ready to help him.

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Banjo is in the middle of a trial at Colorado State University‘s (CSU) veterinary school helping with research on new cancer treatments. So far he’s doing well. The hope is he’ll beat the expectations.

Banjo is finishing up the trials at CSU now. Doctors hope that he will go into remission and that the cancer will stay away.

“He’s had some really, really rough weeks,” Wagley said. “There were a couple of times where I just had to sit and hold him and tell him that I knew what he was going through and that I was going to be here for him no matter what. It’s tough. You don’t want to see your best friend go through something like that, especially if you know what it’s like.”

The world can be a random place sometimes. But take a look at Wagley and Banjo, and it’s hard not to think they were meant for each other.

“I know he wouldn’t be the best dog for someone else,” Wagley said. “But he’s the best dog for me.”

The majority of Banjo’s costs for treatment are covered by the cancer trials he is in. Wagley also has a GoFundMe account


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