One Step at a Time
By Carie Broecker
Imagine walking almost 2,000 miles down the west coast of the United States, from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, with a Great Pyrenees at your side. There would be magnificent views from the many vistas you would encounter. The natural beauty would be breathtaking, but the journey would be arduous. Imagine seeing the Monterey Bay area for the first time and continuing south down the Pacific Coast Highway into Big Sur and beyond. Your footprint is three feet wide with your dog by your side. Vehicles are whizzing past you with a mere three inches to spare as you press yourself and your dog as far onto the shoulder as possible without being swept over and down a cliff to the sea. Why would anyone do this walk?
Let’s back up. Luke Robinson is in an exam room at a veterinary clinic. He is in shock because he just found out his seven-year-old Great Pyrenees, Malcolm, has bone cancer. Malcolm had been limping and Luke thought it might be a little arthritis or an injury. His veterinarian took x-rays and broke the devastating news to Luke. Many of us have been there—finding out a beloved pet or family member or friend has cancer. Cancer can make us feel angry, sad, and helpless.
Luke had all those feelings, but he decided to do something about it. That moment at the vet’s office, with tears running down his face, was the catalyst for Luke to start an organization called 2 Million Dogs. As Luke educated himself about cancer so he could help Malcolm, he learned that people and dogs get the same kinds of cancer. He learned that cancer cells in people are identical to cancer cells in dogs. He learned that by studying cancer in dogs, researchers could better understand cancer in people. He learned about comparative oncology, which is the study of similarities between dogs and humans with cancer. And he learned that there is not enough research being done to stop this deadly disease from cutting lives short.
The mission of the Puppy Up Foundation (formerly called 2 Million Dogs) is to help discover the common links between canine and human cancers and the causes of these cancers through comparative oncology research. The foundation accomplishes this through education, empowerment, and investment in research.
Luke knew he had to do something to make a difference and to stop cancer. He took off his suit and tie and put his business and finance background behind him. He sold most of his belongings to begin a 2,300-mile, two-year journey from Austin, Texas to Boston, Massachusetts. He walked from town to town talking with people about Malcolm, educating them about cancer, and raising funds for cancer research one mile, one city, and one person at a time. By his side were his two Great Pyrenees, Hudson and Murphy. And on his arm, his tattoo of Malcolm with the words, “You are my son.”
Shortly after finishing that first walk, his beloved Murphy, who had just walked in memory of Malcolm, was diagnosed with an aggressive nasal cancer. Once again, Luke’s world was shaken to the core. Within a year he would lose Murphy, another beloved dog—his child—to cancer. After losing Murphy he felt like he had to get back on the road and continue raising awareness and funds, and he began to plan his next trip.
In 2010, after Luke’s first walk, twelve cities had been inspired to host Puppy Up walks for cancer awareness and to raise funds for cancer research. Each year the number of walks has grown, and last year 32 cities held Puppy Up walks.
In May 2014, Luke started his second trek of nearly 2,000 miles from Vancouver to San Diego with his dogs Hudson and Indiana (who is also a Great Pyrenees) by his side. He and the dogs would walk from town to town with the mission of spreading awareness of canine and human cancer. At the end of each long day, Luke pitched a tent to share with the dogs (who he affectionately calls the “fuzzybutts”) or stayed with supporters when possible. Supporters would also meet up with them along the way from time to time to walk a stretch of road or bring them treats.
The hardest part of the trip was when they arrived at the California border and Hudson was not doing well. He was having problems with his pads and was struggling. Luke could not keep Hudson on the road with him in this condition. Luke made the decision to send Hudson back home to Memphis. A supporter volunteered to drive him back. Luke and Indiana continued on their mission to leave a legacy of awareness and mobilization on the west coast.
Luke and Indy made their way through Santa Cruz and Monterey counties around the last week of October. We met up with them in Moss Landing on a small dirt-road turnoff along Highway 1. Having already gone 10 miles that day, they restocked their water at the house of a friendly neighbor and then took a well-deserved break on the side of the road. Indy lapped up a cool drink from his folding bowl and Luke recounted a bit of his backstory, explaining some of the symbolism he carries with him, including the necklace he wore with two hollow links containing the ashes of both Malcolm and Murphy.
On Sunday, December 14, after seven months of walking an average of 80 miles per week, Luke and Indiana completed their journey. Puppy Up Foundation executive director, Ginger Morgan, brought Hudson out to walk the last two days with them, along with a group of supporters.
Puppy Up Foundation has awarded $250,000 in grants for comparative oncology research and has invested $100,000 in education and awareness campaigns. Luke has now walked 4,000 miles across 19 states, and has spent three years on the road raising awareness for his cause. Luke plans to retreat to New England with the dogs to settle in and put words to paper to write a book that tells his story and brings awareness of his cause to the masses.
There is still a long road ahead in the field of cancer research. The studies that are needed are multiyear, multimillion-dollar studies. Luke will be leading the way and won’t rest until advances are made to prevent and treat cancer in animals and people.