September 27, 2010 11:45 AM

She was the self-described “lioness” of her family, its backbone. But in 2007, when model Patti Hansen found out she had bladder cancer, she was temporarily sidelined.

Hanson’s battle lasted six months, and it was a tough journey. To get through it, she and her husband, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, leaned on their two daughters – as well as other family members and friends – for support. They also turned to their two French bulldogs, Sugar and Etta.

“These dogs lifted me up,” Hansen, who is now cancer-free, tells PEOPLE. “It was just us here with these little girls who need a lot of attention. It was a ridiculous amount of me spoiling them and them spoiling me.”

Hansen and Richards ended up with their quartet of black-and-white pooches when daughter Alexandra visited Hansen while she was undergoing chemotherapy. Alexandra brought along her new dog, Sugar.

“We fell in love with her. Keith didn’t want to give her up,” Hansen says.

Sugar and her sisters did more than lavish Hansen with affection. They also helped take her mind off of her illness. “I had to get up to take care of them,” she says. But they sat calmly with her when she needed time to rest. “They’ll stay in bed with you and just keep you company. I definitely recommend critters. They help.”

Read more about Patti Hansen and her fight in the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

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