Transforming Pain into Promise of Better Treatment

Sarah Orr’s dog, Christie, celebrating her 8th birthday at home in 2010. Orr says the clinical trial she enrolled Christie in earlier that year allowed them to share many more joyful moments together while helping improve the future of cancer care for dogs and humans alike.


Sarah Orr considers herself to be an accidental dog lover. After all, she didn’t grow up around many animals or in a home where dogs were constantly underfoot. In fact, it wasn’t until she rescued a stray dog in her neighborhood in 1999 that she knew dogs would forever be a part of her life from that point forward. Since then, Sarah has owned a total of five dogs, each of which has brought a level of joy to her life she never could have imagined.

But as every pet owner unfortunately learns, dogs’ relatively shorter lifespans means that joy is inevitably counterbalanced by heartbreak. And Orr has experienced an unusual amount of the latter.  Each of her five dogs were diagnosed with some form of cancer, some of them with multiple kinds. And yet, given her undeniable love and affection for her dogs, there’s no question that they were very lucky to have had Sarah in their lives.

“My dogs are my passion, and I will do anything I can to help them,” Orr says.

And she clearly has. In 2010, when her 7-year-old yellow lab Christie was diagnosed with nasal cancer, a relatively rare but aggressive type of canine cancer, she searched far and wide for the best treatment options to improve the quality of life that Christie had left. When she learned that the UW School of Veterinary was running a clinical study examining the efficacy of TomoTherapy, a new radiation therapy treatment founded by then UW Professor Rock Mackie, she loaded Christie and her other dog into the car and drove the 90 miles to Madison.

When Sarah arrived, she found out there was only one spot left in the study, and Christie was lucky enough to qualify for it.  For the next two and half weeks, Christie would be transported each evening by veterinary staff to UW’s human hospital across campus, where she would undergo treatment using that facility’s TomoTherapy machine. Although Christie eventually passed away from her cancer, Orr is grateful that the trial added so much life to Christie’s remaining days.

“I have no doubt in my mind that the study improved her quality of life those last few months,” Orr says. “I have this photo of her running around the yard a few days after the final treatment, happy and energetic as can be. The experience with that particular study made a huge impression on me that obviously continues to this day.”

Orr’s decision to enroll Christie in the clinical trial made its own impression on the future of cancer care, not just in dogs but for humans as well. TomoTherapy is now an important treatment option for treating multiple types of cancers in animals and humans alike, especially metastatic cancers and tumors that may be hard to reach with other technologies.

Since her experience in 2010, Orr has decided to advance oncology care and research at SVM through her generous philanthropic commitments, including an estate gift, annual donations during Pet Week, contributions in memory of other dogs she has since lost to cancer, as well as her most recent gift to the Speaker Match, a dollar-for-dollar matching gift program that will help fully equip the school’s expanded facilities, including the addition of PET/CT, a new technology being brought to the SVM.

“I’m passionate about this cause because of what all my dogs have gone through, and it feels especially good to come full circle after the experience we had with Christie’s care back in 2010,” she says. “I know so many people who have lost their dogs to cancer, and it can be so devastating. I want to do whatever I can that might lead to better treatment for these diseases so that our dogs can be cured, survive longer, or have better quality of life for as long as they are with us.”

Orr’s current dog, Annie, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer five years ago and had been undergoing bi-annual CT-Scans at UW until being released from oncology care in 2021.  Annie is now 12 years old and her cancer is in remission.

This article was featured in the Winter 2023-24 issue of On Call.

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