Dedicated to “taking a bite out of cancer”, Smiling Blue Skies helps fund studies to learn more about this devastating disease, and make a difference in the lives of our dogs.
Most of us have been affected by cancer, whether it strikes ourselves, a friend or family member – or an animal companion. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, around 25% of dogs will develop cancer at some point in their lives; that number rises to almost 50% in dogs over the age of ten. While diagnostic testing and treatments have improved over the years, we still have much to learn about successfully treating canine cancer and increasing longevity and quality of life in afflicted dogs. The Smiling Blue Skies Cancer Fund is a charitable foundation that raises monies for canine cancer research. We spoke to founder Dr. Suzi Beber, honoris causa, to learn more about the fund and how it works.
AW: What was the inspiration behind Smiling Blue Skies?
SB: The Smiling Blue Skies Cancer Fund/Smiling Blue Skies Fund for Innovative Cancer Research was founded almost 20 years ago following the loss of our golden retriever, Blues, to lymphoma. To honor his memory, we wanted to make a difference for other dogs who were diagnosed with cancer, and support the Ontario Veterinary College Pet Trust’s quest to find more and better ways to deal with cancer.
The Smiling Blue Skies website began as a one-page memorial to Blues. Over time, it has become one of the most comprehensive websites dedicated to cancer cancer. Since our very humble beginnings, we have raised over $1.9 million.
AW: What is your mission and how are you helping with cancer research?
SB: Our mission is everyone’s mission — to live in a world without cancer. For now, our primary goal is to take a big bite out of cancer. To that end, the impact of Smiling Blue Skies is felt across multiple areas of the Ontario Veterinary College, which states that funds raised are “investing in the future of veterinary oncology through clinical trials, bench research, and best in care treatments and equipment.”
Smiling Blue Skies helps in a variety of ways. Between 2014 and 2019, for example, 1,215 canine patients were recruited into 43 oncology-related studies, many funded by Smiling Blue Skies and the OVC Pet Trust. There are currently 20 active studies at the OVC Health Sciences Centre. Further, 16 studies are open for recruitment and another four are closed for recruitment, but 121 patients are still being actively tracked through the collection of samples and the gathering of follow-up data.
In addition, Smiling Blue Skies has funded the Companion Animal Tumour Sample Bank, located at the Ontario Veterinary College. This unique resource was developed by the University of Guelph Institute for Comparative Cancer Investigation (ICCI) and provides the scientific community with access to clinical specimens from naturally-occurring cancers. This depository facilitates retrospective analysis of cancer cases for which outcome data is available, and is a powerful tool for scientists to identify biomarkers for more reliable patient outcome predictions, as well as to obtain insight into the underlying causes of cancer.
AW: How does Smiling Blue Skies raise funds?
SB: One of the things that sets us apart from other charitable foundations is that no big companies or corporations donate funds to Smiling Blue Skies. We are all about families and individuals. Our volunteers make everything possible. We also absorb all costs for fund-raising events.
We have held many different types of fundraising activities over the years. They include walks, of which our very first was held in Muskoka. Walks have also been held in other Ontario communities, as well as Quebec and BC – from Barrie, Bradford, Burlington, Oakville, and Toronto, to Montreal, Nanaimo (in partnership with Luke’s Legacy), Victoria, and Tofino.
We’ve also raised funds through Smiling Blue Skies Ceramics (which no longer exists), Smiling Blue Skies Jewelry, Capital Comets raffles and other agility club fundraising activities across the country. We’ve offered calendars and candles (i.e. the Candle of Hope, in collaboration with the Tofino Soap Company), and held Woof-fit Triathlons for Dogs and Their People. The Animal Wellness Natural Cookbook for Dogs, published by Redstone Media Group donates 5% of the sale of each cookbook to the Smiling Blue Skies Fund for Innovative Cancer Research. Other fundraisers include the Tofino Beach Walk and Breakfast with Yoga for Dogs, concerts featuring Pat Hewitt, obedience training seminars, field training workshops, and more. We also received support from different dog clubs, including the Golden Retriever Club of Canada, and the Golden Retriever Club of British Columbia.
We also provide 24/7 support to anyone whose life has been touched by cancer.
AW: How are you working around COVID when it comes to raising funds this year?
SB: It is very challenging because we are unable to hold “in person” events. So every single donation is so, so appreciated!
A few events have still been happening safely around the pandemic. For example, our Barrie volunteers held a calendar contest to raise funds. The Western Cup Challenge, an annual dock diving event hosted by Eromit Labrador Retrievers, did everything online this year, including a Smiling Blue Skies raffle and fundraiser. And our Toronto group has a great handmade mask project going on right now at Hastings Barber Shop in Leslieville.
AW: What plans does Smiling Blue Skies have moving forward?
SB: We will continue to do what we have always done – help find more and better ways to deal with cancer by being part of the University of Guelph/OVC Pet Trust “family”. We will also continue to provide funding assistance for studies and grants, and provide monetary support for the positions of Clinical Research Coordinator and Tissue and Tumour Bank Coordinator at the OVC Health Science’s Centre. These two roles are vital to cancer treatment and research opportunities, and we cannot do it without the support of donors. Donor support enables these coordinators to obtain valuable samples for future research, promote clinical trials, and recruit patients for studies that will one day change the face of cancer, for all of us!