May is Pet Cancer Awareness Month and it seemed a good time to share the story of my favorite 3-time cancer survivor, my beloved dog Toby.
As a pet owner, my dogs have never been just pets, they are a part of the family. Toby, a yellow Labrador retriever, joined my family as a puppy and boy did we have some interesting times. Toby took her hatred of mailmen (or any deliveryman for that matter) very seriously. On two occasions she broke through the living room window in an attempt to get the mailman who wasn’t helping his cause by blowing kisses to her! Have you read Marley & Me? Insert Toby and you pretty much get the picture. Yes, she caused lots of havoc. But she loved us and we loved her dearly.
When Toby was just a puppy, she developed a lump on her leg, which turned out to be a mast cell tumor. Fortunately it was a low-grade tumor and easily removed with an easy surgery. She was back to her trouble making self in no time.
Fast forward 11 years and my beloved pooch started loosing hair, so off to see our favorite vet we went. A few tests later we determined that she was experiencing Cushing’s Disease. Being a nurse, I knew a bit about this – though not about the possible causes in dogs! A few more tests and the vet discovered the cause – a tumor in her adrenal gland.
I am sure many people thought what I did next was nuts, but if you love your animals like I do, you know I did not give up there. Off to a specialist in oncology surgery we went and a few days later, Toby had an adrenalectomy – in other words, her tumor filled adrenal gland was surgically removed. Yes, it was an expensive, serious surgery. I was fortunate to have the means to pay for it and a husband who griped, but understood and supported the decisions I made for my girl. Actually, it never even crossed my mind to not have the surgery. Toby’s a tough dog and within a week, she was back playing at the park, chasing squirrels and rolling in the grass with no sign of ever being sick.
Just two years later Toby began to have bleeding from her lower jaw/gumline. At 13 years old, she was no spring chicken and had a few other health issues. My vet did a biopsy and determined this was a squamous cell cancer (SCC). I was devastated. Being an oncology nurse, I knew SCC would not progress well. It would grow, she would have a lot of difficulty eating and it would continue to bleed. I struggled for several days with what to do. Do I give up? Do I explore further surgery? What does Toby want? Like I say, if you don’t have this type of relationship with your pet, you cannot possibly understand how heart-wrenching this can be to face. You are the advocate and voice for this helpless being – that is a heavy weight to carry.
I decided to see a surgeon and explore the options; he shared that he would perform an aggressive surgery, removing her entire lower jaw. He showed me pictures of dogs who had this same procedure and assured me she would do just fine. I just didn’t feel comfortable with any of what he was saying – this was a 13 year old, not so healthy dog. I thought about what I tell people facing cancer treatment decisions- listen to your gut- if it doesn’t feel right, get another opinion.
I am lucky to live in a big city where I had another surgeon I could visit – Dr. S. who did the adrenalectomy a few years back! He was happy to see his former patient and understood my hesitations. His approach was less radical and made me feel better about the decision to proceed with surgery. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing, but I had to at least give her the chance.
Toby got through the surgery and had a much harder time with the recovery this time around. My husband rushed me back to the vet hospital the night after discharge because she was in pain and I could not get her to take any medications. The experience made me doubt my decision many times over, but after a few weeks of TLC, she was doing better and acclimating to her “new normal” as we say in human cancer survivorship.
She lived 2 more happy years. She welcomed and showed a new furry family member the ropes and welcomed our first baby, whom she gave lots of kisses before she died. I look back and think of what a survivor she really was – three bouts with cancer and she still lived life to the max. I hope that I did right as her advocate and voice in this world – it is the least I could do for someone who was always there for me when I needed a smile on my face and brought so much joy to my life. Toby, I hope you are somewhere chasing squirrels and eating bones all day, everyday!