Donkeys have been helping a pair of young cancer survivors with their emotional recovery.

The Donkey Sanctuary’s Belfast base has been working with cancer charity CLIC Sargent to see if spending time with the animals could benefit former patients.

Annaliese Laffan, 20, and Leighann Hickinson, 22, took part in the nine-week pilot scheme.

The 90 minutes sessions involved grooming and handling donkeys, as well as observing their behaviour.

Annaliese was diagnosed with cancer after sustaining a brain injury in a jeep accident while on a gap year in Australia.

She was placed in an induced coma, which led to the discovery of cancerous lumps on her neck.

“It was such a hard time,” said Annaliese.

“My parents actually heard the news first. I was struggling to process things with the injury. My parents had to sit me down and talk me through it. It was a horrible shock.”

The 20-year-old had to go through two sets of treatment after the cancer returned.

After her treatment, CLIC Sargent social worker Simon Darby asked her if she would like to take part in the scheme.

Annaliese said she did not want to do it at first.

I didn’t know how it would work, and I was also worried about getting emotional,” she said.

“I had been pressing a lot down inside and it worried me to let it out.

“You work with these calming animals and we would talk about our experiences and how we felt.
“Before you know it you are talking about your feelings in a way you haven’t expected.”

Leighann developed a weakness in her right side and was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour.

She underwent surgery, followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

I think people need more emotional support when they finish treatment and there’s time for it to hit home,” said Leighann.

“Simon was basically just like a friend to me and helped me get what I needed financially during and after treatment with grants and other things.

“When he mentioned the donkey programme I had no idea what he was talking about. So I went along, not thinking it would work. I find it really hard to talk about my feelings anyway.

“It just gave us a way to distract ourselves with the animals. They help you to relax and to talk about things. I ended up talking about so much. It felt good to talk about these things and this really helped.

“The presence of the donkeys really helps in a way that is hard to explain – you understand when you do it.”

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Annaliese and Leighann have both signed up to new courses to work in education following the pilot.

Simon added the pair have “transformed” since starting the project.

“Every week I watched in awe at something I knew very little about,” he said.

“As the weeks went on I experienced goose-bump moments where the young people were talking about issues that many cancer survivors would struggle with years after treatment.

“Having supported them from the beginning of their cancer journeys I can see them now starting to move forward with plans for the future, I can now see their self-confidence and self-belief for the first time.”

Caron Whaley, director of donkey-assisted therapy at The Donkey Sanctuary, added while the sanctuary’s staff facilitate the programme, it is the donkeys that do the work.

“Their bond with humans is independent, intuitive, autonomous,” she said.

“Without anthropomorphising donkeys, their connection with people both teaches us about them, and teaches us about ourselves.

“Vulnerable children and adults learn from their physical and emotional experience with these exceptional creatures.”

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