Written By Jenny Pavlovic
Well, I certainly didn’t see this coming. My oh-so-special dog Chase has been diagnosed with cancer. As cancer does, it came like a blow to the gut when least expected, and suddenly figuring out what to do about this fast-growing disease was our top priority. Chase had blood in his stools for a few months, but the vet couldn’t find anything wrong. Then one day in June she felt a lump and we scheduled a surgery to have it removed. Probably just a benign polyp, we thought. But on surgery day she discovered that the lump was growing and had ruptured. The histopathology report came back “colonic adenocarcinoma”… cancer.
Chase, my beautiful, healthy, happy-spirited dog, my library dog, seemed just fine on the outside, but something menacing was growing in his colon. The initial diagnosis came with a caution that this is an aggressive cancer and that—even with treatment– Chase might only have months to live. I was shocked, and sad to think that Chase might not be with us much longer. But this cancer wasn’t going to wait, so we had to act fast. We were lucky I had noticed the blood in his stools.
I decided right away that Chase has given me enough, more than anyone could hope for in a lifetime, and I don’t need to keep him around for me when it no longer makes sense for him. I want to give him every chance for survival, if it will provide him a good quality of life. But I don’t want to put him through extreme hardship thinking that I need more from him. I’m extremely lucky to have known him for the seven-plus years he has been part of my family.
I had been concerned about Bandit’s lipomas, and that Bandit, almost 10 years old, is getting older. I hadn’t been concerned that Chase, at age 8, might not get older, that he might have something dark growing inside of him that is much more frightening and even possibly lethal. It’s funny how life works. You can try to be vigilant, but really you don’t have much to say about how life goes, other than your own actions and response.
I was stunned by the cancer diagnosis. We live in a relatively safe place out in the country, with no pesticides on the lawn, no chemical cleaners on the floor, clean well water from a deep aquifer that is tested regularly, no direct chemical drift from farm fields, and good healthy food. I stopped feeding my dogs kibble a while ago due to concerns about processing and harmful dyes. I don’t feed them from plastic bowls that could leach chemicals into their food and water. But the cause(s) of colonic adenocarcinoma are not known.
At first I thought, when you’ve been told you’re going to be hit by a train, but you don’t know when, and you’re pretty sure there’s no way to avoid it completely, do you live your life in fear of the train, or do you try to get as much out of life as you can before the train hits? And, following Chase’s lead, I chose the second option.
One of the first things I did was schedule photo sessions with two of my favorite animal photographers. I wanted to get pictures of Chase (and my other dogs) while he was still feeling well. Next came the whirlwind of learning and deciding what could or should be done (or not) for Chase. Our veterinarian told us that she had not been able to surgically remove the entire tumor. Since it had grown into the wall of the colon, she was not able to excise it with clean margins without damaging the colorectal wall. She indicated that chemotherapy would most likely be the recommended treatment for Chase, then referred us to a veterinary oncologist.
The veterinary oncologist told us that he only sees about one case per year of this rare colonic adenocarcinoma in dogs; there were no studies, no papers to tell us what to do. A CT scan revealed good news: there was no evidence of metastasis to Chase’s lymph nodes or other parts of his body. Amazingly, we had caught it early, before it spread. And also amazingly, the tumor was in an area that could be targeted locally with radiation therapy, a less invasive option than the harsher systemic chemotherapy treatment. Colonic adenocarcinomas that are located farther into the wiggly colon and not as close to the rectum can’t be treated with radiation therapy, which targets the same spot repeatedly on different days.
The Roller coaster ride of deciding what to do and how to pay for Chase’s care began. One day when I was feeling down and stressed, I turned around and there was Chase wearing a pillowcase on his head, with a sheepish look on his face. It was the pillowcase that had been hanging on the back of my chair, the pillowcase that I put on my lap when using my laptop. Chase’s silly expression, like ‘get this thing off of me’ made me burst out laughing, and I realized how tense and stressed I’d been since the diagnosis. Chase reminded me to live in the moment, and I swear that he somehow put that pillowcase on his head on purpose!
I tried to be more like a dog, but sometimes I wasn’t very good at it. Thinking of Chase’s diagnosis and anticipating a shortened life, I cried sometimes. I felt sorry for him (when he didn’t even feel sorry for himself). I felt hung over, heavy inside, when I hadn’t touched a drink. I moved at the speed of molasses. And there was Chase, bringing me the ball, urging me to throw it. Chasing it over and over, making spectacular shortstop saves. Reminding me that on this day we could still do this, and we’d better get to it, we’d best enjoy it! Always by my side, I didn’t think he wanted me to feel bad for him. He wanted me to remember all the good times we’ve shared, and continue seizing the day. So I tried to be more like a dog. 🙂 And whenever he sensed that I needed a hug, he stepped up on the stool in the bathroom and looked at me until I got the hint.
Chase was so happy and healthy that I knew I had to do something for him; I couldn’t do nothing. So, with time being of the essence, Chase began a series of daily definitive radiation therapy (RT) treatments at the end of July. Definitive means, essentially, going after a cure for a disease that may have no cure. Since the end of July, life has been a whirlwind, with Chase’s 21 weekday RT treatments ending on August 23rd. We got up very early every weekday, I dropped him off at the University of Minnesota clinic for the day, and then picked him up after work. I bought two pendants that say, “Every day holds the possibility of a miracle”, and we each wear one around our neck, his on his collar and mine on a silver chain.
After the first day of treatment, when we returned to the clinic on the second day, Chase howled out a greeting when he saw his vet tech in the waiting area. When I saw how well he had bonded with her after just one day, I knew he was in great hands. He handled every visit to the clinic like a therapy dog visit, nosing his way behind the front desk every morning to greet the receptionists, wagging his tail all the way down the hall, reaching out to say hi to everyone who crossed his path. I’m not sure he knew that he was the patient. I, who was stressed by the schedule, making special food for him, lack of sleep, decision-making, finances, and advocating for Chase within the University ‘system’, learned a lot from Chase’s attitude. He made the best of every day and made a lot of friends.
Chase did very well and handled the treatments well. But in mid-August he got very sick. We eventually discovered an odd-shaped piece of plastic in his stomach. It had to be removed with an endoscope. The plastic piece had nothing directly to do with the cancer and was found to be from an old ball that I had thrown away a while ago. I’m not sure how Chase got this plastic or was even able to swallow it, but it blocked the exit from his stomach and could have been fatal. We were lucky.
We worked with our home vet and a complementary medicine vet at the U to give Chase optimal nutrition via whole foods, herbs, and supplements (including Omega Nuggets and Canine Shine) to help him resist the cancer and endure the treatments. They gave him acupuncture treatments to help him deal with pain and nausea, boost his immune system, and keep the energy flowing well in his body. I laid my hands on him and gave him Reiki treatments. And these veterinarians, these caregivers, gave me an abundance of information and emotional support. With their positive energy, I began to think about not just living life to the fullest until the train hit, but about actually derailing the train. Yes, derailing the train!
On the last day of regular RT treatments, it was hard to leave Chase’s friends behind. I had struggled with different veterinarians coming and going, and difficulties with communication and accessing the doctors, but one veterinarian had been very good to us. The vet techs had held everything together and watched out for Chase the whole time, and we had become friends. One vet tech in particular, Jess, was always there for us and went out of her way to help us. Chase fell in love with her. Although I did need to advocate for Chase at times, he turned out to be his own best advocate. People fell in love with him and cared about him almost as much as I do, or maybe even as much. They do a very demanding job in a most loving and caring way, and Chase responded well to this.
Chase missed his July and August library visits. In August Bandit passed the Pet Partners therapy dog test with the highest marks, so he is now qualified to substitute for Chase if needed. The library visits will start up again in September, when the kids are back in school and ready to read to Chase again. I very much appreciated support from people on the READ dog list whose dogs had also undergone cancer treatment. I also received an abundance of support from friends on Facebook, including this saying: “Don’t forget H.O.P.E.: Have Only Positive Expectations”.
With the RT treatments completed, Chase’s body is healing. We’re still in limbo. One of the most maddening things about cancer is not knowing where you stand. I’m hopeful that the cancer cells were killed during the treatment and the normal cells will heal and be healthy again. Not only is colonic adenocarcinoma rare, but it is even more rare to find it before it has metastasized. Since Chase’s cancer was determined to be stage 1, nobody is quite sure what to tell us, because apparently they haven’t seen this before. But everyone is pulling for Chase.
Several people have asked me how we found Chase’s cancer so early, before there was any evidence of metastasis. It was the blood in his stools, appearing intermittently, for several months. I thought it went away for a while, but then it reappeared and I knew something was wrong. Here, from the Veterinary Cancer Society, are the top ten common warning signs that a dog may have cancer and should be examined by a vet. These signs are not specific to cancer and could also indicate other conditions, many of which are not life-threatening. But they should be checked out.
1. Abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow
2. Sores that don’t heal
3. Weight loss
4. Loss of appetite
5. Bleeding or discharge from any body opening
6. Offensive odor
7. Difficulty eating or swallowing
8. Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina
9. Persistent lameness or stiffness
10. Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating
(From the book “Good Old Dog” by Nicholas Dodman ©2010 by Tufts University… This book has a good chapter on fighting canine cancer, which is easy to read and describes well the most common forms.)
Chase is doing great. He’s pooping well, which has been the biggest indicator of how well his colon is functioning. At the beginning of September, he goes back for a follow-up exam and CT scan. The path we’re on today is optimistic, hopeful, living in the moment, enjoying each day. When I’m tempted to think that life isn’t fair, I also think that having a lot to lose means that perhaps life has been more than fair, that life has been pretty generous indeed. We know we’re lucky to have each other and we’re not wasting one single day.
The traditional and holistic vets agreed that Omega Nuggets and Canine Shine are great supplements for Chase. I think it helped that Chase’s skin, coat and immune system were in great condition before he began treatment. He still looks great, is energetic, and did not lose any hair during the treatments. Use the code JPavlovic for 20% off your first online order