“Bess has cancer.” Three words I’d prayed I wouldn’t hear, from the day a friend and I noticed a lump on her jaw. Bess was only twelve years old…and a very young twelve, at that. She had ruled the dogs and cats in my home her entire life. She was not mean; don’t misunderstand, she was simply The Diva. She was in charge from the day she first shared this house with a young boxer…and then came the rescued pugs...and then more boxer rescues. Through the years and the changes, she was the acknowledged alpha dog, always breaking up squabbles and supervising play.
Bess’ cancer was malignant oral melanoma, an aggressive and destructive beast that responds poorly to chemotherapy and radiation. There is a vaccine for it that gets mixed reviews; some dogs do well, some do not. “She has a few weeks, maybe a couple of months”. More words I did not want to hear. But hear them I did and thus started a journey that was far too short, but brought me more knowledge and understanding of a huge enemy for our dogs than I ever wanted to have. I write this in her memory and honor, in the hope that some of this information will help someone who hears those three words that are, in an instant, life changing and heartbreaking.
The diagnosis of cancer has enormous meaning for the person who hears it; however, for the pet, there is no such thing. Dogs and cats live in the moment; since Bess had no idea she was sick, I needed to let her live her life and follow her lead. For the vast majority of the weeks she survived, she was happy, ate well, snoozed in my lap and did all the things she normally did. I spent hours on the Internet, looking for the magic words that somehow would save her life. They weren’t there…but a huge quantity of knowledge was available. I was determined that she would not spend what time she had miserable and alone in some university hospital, away from home and away from me. So even if traditional treatments had offered great promise, I’m not sure I would have chosen that path.
I contacted a holistic vet, with the total support of my traditional vets, and worked closely with her. She prescribed many supplements, most of which I had read about online and I was happy to use them. She did acupuncture treatments and we injected Bess’ tumor with Neoplasene. Bess also took oral Neoplasene and tolerated it well. Milk thistle provided support for her liver, which was now filtering all these supplements, as well as the everyday toxins from life. Her diet was changed to a grain free, high protein food (there are many available) because cancer thrives on carbohydrates.
The only surgical intervention came at the very beginning, both to debulk the growth in her mouth and to obtain samples to biopsy for the diagnosis. The tumor was huge, extending into her jaw and the roof of her mouth. That initial surgery was major, as the veterinarian attempted to remove as much of this growth as possible, so teeth were pulled and part of her jaw was removed. Even so, we knew there was tumor tissue remaining; it was too invasive at the outset to get it all…and, I believe, that’s why her prognosis was so grim. She lived eleven weeks to the day from the first visit to the vet and fought the disease as she had lived her life, with spirit and determination.
In hindsight, there are a couple of things I would have done differently. Even before the debulking surgery, I would have taken her to the holistic veterinarian and started on supplements to help her immune system. I would have been MUCH more aggressive about checking her mouth and face for even the smallest changes. And in a perfect world, if finances had not been an issue, I would have given her the melanoma vaccine as well as fighting the cancer holistically and surgically. And in the end, these differences might or might not have meant anything at all. But I do know that if I ever even suspect cancer in a dog again, I will RUN, not walk to the holistic veterinarian and use the “double barreled” approach from the very beginning.
So… what to do when you hear those three words? Talk at length to your veterinarian. Ask questions. If there is an oncologist nearby and your pet’s cancer is one that responds well to traditional treatment, investigate those possibilities. If you prefer the holistic approach, find a good holistic vet and start a relationship with them. Go online and Google “canine cancer” and be prepared to read for days. Literally. Investigate links to supplements and from those links follow the paths that open up with every click of the mouse. The amount of information and the number of possible treatments is overwhelming; work with a trusted veterinarian to sort out the best possible treatment for your friend. You are the advocate for your pet; follow your heart and your gut as you make decisions. No decision will be wrong if it is made with love and the knowledge about your pet that only you have. There are foundations whose mission is to help people afford treatment for pets with cancer. For emotional support, go to Yahoo Groups and search “canine cancer groups”; there are numerous support groups available. You will become fast friends with people whose faces you may never see. And their information will be invaluable to you as yours will be to them. In addition to the groups for “canine cancer”, there are groups for nearly every specific type of cancer…bone cancer, hemangiosarcoma, lymphoma and more. There are groups for specific treatments…Neoplasene, artemisinin, black salve and others.
Be vigilant; check your dog for any changes on a daily basis. Cancer is an aggressive opponent and tumors can grow at an amazing rate of speed. A few days can make a difference in how well a treatment or an injection can work. Insist on pain medication if you know anecdotally that a treatment may be painful...even if the vet says that it is not. Be strong; as difficult as it may be, do not exhibit negative energy (sadness or tears) that will impact your pet. He or she will use valuable energy worrying about you when they need every bit of strength to fight their disease. Make every effort to continue life as usual...but hold them a little more, love them a little more and treasure each minute you have after diagnosis, for their presence is a gift. Remember that the “numbers” the vet gives you for the length of time you have are nothing more than educated guesses. And your pet doesn’t understand those numbers. Try to live in the moment as they do and enjoy each other as much as you can.
And finally, know when to stop. Quality of life is the key; when a treatment is working against the cancer but making the dog more uncomfortable, tough decisions have to be made. Make a list of things that are acceptable in keeping your pet comfortable for the most part; when their everyday life starts to deviate greatly from that list, then it’s time to let them rest. Bess’ list was eating, being bright and interactive and staying comfortable for the better part of each day. Since she was a pug, even her curled tail entered into the equation…if her tail curl was there and that tail was wagging, life was still good. If she had started to leave her tail unfurled, I would have known she was depressed or in pain. I was willing to use pain medication for her; I was not willing to use opiates to the point that she slept her life away. I was willing to “take a break” in treatment if her mouth was sore or if she was tired of eating all those supplements. And at the end, I had to do what I was most unwilling to do; to make the decision when the time came to euthanize her, because to do anything else would have been selfish on my part and unfair to her. She was no more willing to give up the battle than I…but the tumor had invaded too much of her facial structure for her to maintain a comfort level and continue to eat well. She fought death as she had fought the cancer beast, but in the end, she rested in peace...and left a huge hole in my heart and life.
For more information about Bess and her story, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
With thanks to Dr. Mary Battistella, Dr. Dara Dickey and Dr. Darcy Odom, three special ladies who helped fight the battle.
A FEW RESOURCES:
Canine Cancer, Canine Cancer Comfort, The Black Salve Neoplasene Cancer Forum, Artemisinin and Cancer
www.dogcancer.net, www.holisticvetlist.com, www.cancerchoices.com, www.helpyourdogfightcancer.com, www.caninecancer.com, www.dogcancercare.com, www.herbal-treatments.com, www.cancertutor.com, www.earthangelherbs.com, www.buckmountainbotanicals,net,