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FORT COLLINS - A penpal program through Children's Hospital Colorado is making sure kids are not alone in the fight against cancer.

In honor of Pet Cancer Awareness Month, Colorado State University is pairing pet cancer patients with kids battling cancer through a pen-pal program called Youth and Pet Survivors.

Founded in 2001, YAPS matches pediatric care patients with pets suffering from serious illnesses. Pet owners then exchange handwritten letters with the kids.

The program connects patients from the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children's Hospital Colorado with animal patients treated at the CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center and other veterinary hospitals.

Caleb, a 15-year-old patient at Children's Hospital Colorado, now shares something unique with a 7-year-old Pomeranian, Pepper: they are both fighting cancer.

"Even though they know the pet owners are writing the letters, the children talk to the animals. They express themselves on paper in ways they don't verbally express to family and doctors," said Anne Gillespie, a nurse who founded YAPS.

Caleb picked his penpal from a list of animals. Caleb underwent chemotherapy to treat an optic tumor, which caused him to lose vision in one eye.

Gillespie says the owners of 12 dogs and two cats are currently participating in the program, which also helps them cope.

"I still wanted these children to experience the power of the human-animal bond. I thought, 'Why not create a penpal program? And why not find animals with cancer as well?'" Gillespie said.

Pepper's story is strikingly similar to Caleb's. The dog was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2012. It pinched the dog's optic nerve, resulting in facial paralysis and eventually the removal of one eye.

"I use the emotions I felt through Pepper's experience to respond to Caleb," said Pam Payne, Pepper's owner.

During their treatments, Pepper and Caleb both developed additional tumors.

"I used to cry all the way home from CSU," said Payne, who lives in Boulder. "But all of my tears wouldn't make a drop in a bucket compared to what parents of children with cancer go through."

To learn more about the program, or to sign up, visit: http://www.youthandpetsurvivors.org/

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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