I assume you have found your way to this website because you just found out that your dog has cancer, or after years of paying for cancer treatments you are in search of help, that is why I am here. Our story starts out like yours, either one day you detected a lump on your pet or like us you found out at a routine exam that beneath your pet’s thick, healthy coat were enlarged lymph nodes, hiding from your unsuspecting touch. Before you knew it you were sitting in the waiting room of a veterinary oncology office, scared and a little in shock.
Even though we had once had a dog with a mast cell tumor that was removed and never returned, our real introduction to canine cancer came with the announcement that our 6-year old Siberian Husky named Uta has lymphoma. “I’m really sorry”, the vet said as he folded his arms across his chest, placed his chin on his palm and leaned back against the exam table. “You are looking at a serious situation, this is not good.” We took those words in for a few minutes then pushed them aside as quickly as we could, “Okay then, what’s next?”
Less than 24 hours later we were sitting in the office of the New England Veterinary Oncology Group in Waltham, MA, nearly two hours from home. There aren’t a lot of clinics that deal with this and we met people and pets from all of the surrounding states in the waiting room; all of us looking and feeling the same way. After years of sitting in that room, we could tell who had just gotten the diagnosis and were there for the first time as they walked through the door.
Our first battle partner was Dr. Michele Silver, a young and enthusiastic oncologist at NEVOG who put Uta through a battery of tests and determined we had caught it early and that the prognosis was good, if she responded to chemotherapy ¬she could live for about 18 months, 3 if left untreated. The anticipated cost was between 4 to 5 thousand dollars. We put our faith in these cancer-fighting veterans and hoped for the best.
With our 401K evaporating before our very eyes as Wall Street plummeted, taking our assets with it, we decided that our money would be better spent on Uta rather than lost to the stock market, so we told Dr. Silver to get started. Just 24 hours from her primary care “routine” exam the meaning of “routine” had changed, dramatically.
A 16 week protocol of various drug rotations, with only one relatively minor bad reaction during her first round, yes I said ”first round”, began the fight. She went into remission fairly easily and unknowable to anyone who has never gone through this, we found out that chemotherapy really wasn’t a big deal for dogs and cats. Not to say that this is always the case, but we learned that more often than not chemotherapy is not devastatingly harsh on animals. There are noted exceptions I know, but our experience was what we were told, the norm.
We did what many people do; first we wondered what we had done to cause the cancer, then let go of that as counterproductive, we took her for Holistic treatments, put her on a fresh food diet, tried acupuncture, inhabited the Internet in search of advice on supplements and alternative treatments and stuck as closely as we could to the chemotherapy protocol, allowing for variations as dictated by her ability to tolerate the stress.
Over the next several months things went well, we went back to just enjoying her, figuring she would be gone within a year or so, but resolved to not freak out and cast her remaining days with a cloud of dread and doom.
Early on as we told our friends and family about her we got a lot of well-meaning head shaking advice and questions. “Is that really fair?” “Wouldn’t it be better to put her down?” “Aren’t you being selfish putting her through this because you don’t want to let go?” And our personal favorite, “I wouldn’t do that even if I could afford it, because it’s….ONLY A DOG.” No one who met or saw Uta ever thought we were making her suffer, in fact they were usually surprised at how vital she looked.
About 10 months later she came out of remission for the first time. To my knowledge there is no cure for lymphoma, basically you send it down into its trenches for as long as you can, but it usually returns, hopefully many months later. And so it did as we expected. Having had a good experience with the first round we resumed treatment. This time it stayed away for 9 months, falling pretty much within normal range for a second round of chemotherapy.
Through all of this she only experienced a few days of lethargy and nausea, nothing greater than any us go through during cold and flu season. No one suggests putting you down when you get the flu, no matter how hard you beg your loved ones to pull your plug, they tell you to buck up, it will pass.
We learned how to prepare her before each treatment and how to support her afterwards. We have quite a collection of home remedy products, various OTC meds, nutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals. The kitchen looks like a drugstore.
During this time she’s been a happy active dog. She looks forward to visiting with her “old friends” at NEVOG, as the 18-month diagnosis turned in to over three years and counting as of this writing. She wags her tail and trots in to see her caregivers when they come to bring in back for treatments. They too have come to love her back and take joy and I hope pride in her successful life with cancer.
Only once, midway in her treatments, a week before Christmas 2009, did she have a really bad reaction to Adriamycin. We knew that she may have reached her tolerance for this one drug, but erroneously decided to give it to her one last time. Decisions have to be made one at a time and nothing is ever perfect, as long as you get more right than wrong you are ahead.
Her reaction was so bad that she ended spending a night and a day in the Animal ER Hospital in Acton, MA. We checked in her around 11 PM and tried to go on about celebrating Christmas with friends, it was a typical snowy New England night and the roads were treacherous. Driving past cars off the road we had moments of questioning ourselves. Had we made the wrong decision? Was it time to stop? Had we just killed our beloved pet?
The next day with her being safeguarded by vets and technicians for a second night we decided to go to a late night movie to relax, on the way we got a call from the hospital, she was not doing well and we needed to get there ASAP. So we altered our route and headed back down an icy Route 2, figuring that this was the night we were going to lose her.
When we got there we decided that she needed to come home, they had done all they could and it was time for us to take over. But before we left we had an unexpected Christmas gift to accept. As we were figuring out how to pay the hospital bill, pulling out every plastic card we had and wondering if they had dishes we could wash, the desk clerk came in with good news and one condition. If we did not ask for the source, someone had donated $500 towards her care. It still makes me cry when I remember that night. It was our own personal “Christmas Carol” event.
Crawling home, three hours in the snowstorm, we felt especially blessed to have been helped in our time of crisis with our beloved pet breathing deeply in the back seat. Foremost on our minds was the person or persons who had helped us when we needed help the most. We felt connected to the heart of charity and those who engage in it.
As weak as she was when we picked her up she tried to jump into the truck by herself. She had just wanted to be home. When we got there we set her up on the futon and began a week of 24-hour watch shifts. It took a couple of weeks for her to recover fully during which my husband and I rotated rounds, watching, administering meds and mostly making her feel safe.
Neither of us slept much, across the room of each other, I in the recliner Uta on the futon, we watched each other all night. Occasionally we would each open an eye to peek over for assurance that it was going to be okay and eventually it was.
We went through that Christmas period with this extraordinary “Secret Santa” gift on our minds. It was the only one given that year and the most important one received.
She has now gone through 4-16 week rounds of chemo, the cancer has become resistant and complete remission is unattainable. She was only 6 when her cancer arrived on scene, an average age I am told, but she just celebrated her ninth birthday. She has been living with cancer for over a third of her life.
One of the reasons we decided to treat her initially was that even just a year or two in a dogs’ life is a long time. With the prognosis of 1.5 years it seemed worth it. The “1 year equals 7” adage, not withstanding, preserving quality of life for a loved one in a measure that equals that great a portion of their life, is a very tangible accomplishment. To get three years has been an extraordinary experience and the best kind of bad luck.
So we learned to ignore well intentioned, but ill placed “good advice”, and everything we could about cancer. We have maintained as positive an attitude as possible so that she would not feel our stress and compromise her response to treatment. Early on we resolved to support her for as long as we possibly could, until her body gave out and her quality of life was degraded.
In the process we learned much more than we bargained for at the estimated cost of 4-5 thousand dollars. The shocking exact total, we don’t have, we stopped counting at some point and keep to an estimate of about $20,000, more or less, when all will be said and done. However we do know exactly how much time it bought her and that has become the more important number for us.
If we had these nine years to do over, starting on the day that we selected her from the litter, and knowing what we know now, we would surely do it again, in a heart beat. But of course we would do just a couple of things differently and here comes the part of our story most worth sharing.
First, you never know what the price of love and commitment will be. You don’t even know what you would do for love until challenged. We certainly could not afford to do this, but neither could we conceive of not doing it given the treatability of this disease, and that is more evident now than it was three years ago.
This was our choice we have no complaints about the cost. We did not have children to worry about feeding or putting through college. But even knowing that she would be afflicted with cancer, we would still have taken her home, because she is so sweet as most pets are and because we now know that we were the ones that she ultimately needed to maximize her life, both in span and in quality.
And two, never assume responsibility for more pets than you can afford to go the limit for. If you have limitless money and you know that you always will have it, then great have a zoo. However, if you don’t have limitless funds, then purchase pet insurance. It is not that expensive considering how prevalent canine cancer has become. Until you are in the veterinary oncologist’s office, you would never really know how often it occurs.
Let me repeat myself, as it is our new mantra, purchase pet insurance. It helps you, it helps your pet, it helps your family and it helps organizations such as this maximize the assets that they have to help others.
If you are on this website for the same reason we are, then it’s probably too late, but please tell your friends and your family. If we had done so before Uta got sick, we would not be as strapped as we are today, we will be paying for our loved one long after she is gone. We did get a second dog since Uta developed cancer and she “did not leave the lot” until she was insured.
We had no idea and would not have believed it had we been told, how far we would have gone with this until it was a real. When your pet is looking up to you for help it is too heart breaking to have to put them down due to lack of funds.
Treating canine cancer can be very practical and doable in most cases if you are prepared. It would have taken a lot of stress off of all of us had we accepted the likelihood that it could happen to us.
Today, we sit in gratitude to Canine Cancer Awareness, Inc. After three years of treatments we are so strapped that our greatest fear of having to stop treatment due to lack of funds is gone. We don’t anticipate that Uta will survive a lot longer, other issues related to aging and battling the disease have taken their toll and we are at the point of wondering if it is time to stop. What a huge relief it is to know that euthanasia will be a medical decision, not a financial one.
— Lorraine & Gary
The CCA Board of Directors has allocated $1000 to help pay the costs of Uta’s treatments. Please help Uta continue to fight this disease. Any sponsor donations made on behalf of Uta will be used to pay unpaid invoices and the checks will be sent directly to Uta’s vet.
To help sponsor treatment, you can click on the PayPal donate button below or send a check to:
Canine Cancer Awareness, Inc.
44 Devoe Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
DONATIONS FOR UTA:
07-31-2011 $50 — William Johnson