I’d like to think my career as an oncology technician at the Flint Animal Cancer Center has prepared me for my own dogs’ cancer stories. I’d love to believe that I’ve been able to think through the entire process in a rational and cerebral manner, never waffling through decision-making, only entertaining realistic thoughts, and certainly not subscribing to superstitions – like not buying large bags of dog food or renewing an expired license because in doing so, I’d instantly decrease survival time. Yes, I’d like for all of that to be true, but it’s not.
While I may not apply it all that often at home, I am grateful for the knowledge my job has afforded me because it has removed some of the fear that comes with big decisions. For instance, it was easy to decide not to do chemotherapy with Mason after it was clear that surgery wasn’t a good option. We opted for radiation and got another three months with our sweet boy. He hiked, swam after ducks, ate delicious food, and made it known when the time came that he would have to leave us behind, before suffering the sudden trauma that is typical with hemangiosarcoma.
Two years later, when Doppler (whom we lovingly refer to as Piggy) was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, there was no hesitation over amputation. I see three-legged dogs every day at work; I knew he would recover great and be pain free. I knew we would do chemo and that we would likely have another year with our “pig” if everything went smoothly, as it does for so many of our patients. Then we discovered that he had disease in his lungs and his kidney. It is very uncommon for a dog to have metastatic disease (mets) at the time of diagnosis with osteosarcoma. Once that was uncovered, I felt like I didn’t know anything.
Piggy’s amputation went well, he was home for Christmas, and we started chemotherapy in January 2018. His lung mets continued to progress in the face of carboplatin, doxorubicin, and palladia / losartan, but true to his stubborn, piggish ways, Piggy continues to persevere. His cough is worse, and he has tumor regrowth at the site of his amputation due to us doing a palliative amputation instead of removing half his pelvis to get clean margins – something I thought would be too invasive and propose unnecessary risk since he had disease in two other locations. I struggle with that decision now, but a couple radiation treatments have slowed the growth, and when I’m being clear-headed, I know that we made the best decision at that time.
As I write this, Piggy is close by – my ever-present companion when I’m home. He’s tired from a day of romping in the snow and a hike up to Horsetooth the day before. The good days are followed by bad days, and we’re in the phase of using all the good moments to deny what is truly happening. At work it is easy to identify when a patient is starting to decline; we see them every week or every month, and the changes are noticeable. Being so close makes it less obvious. Every tail wag, meal readily eaten, or burst of energy is seen as “proof” that all is well. For the time being, I’ll ignore what I know and enjoy the extra moments together. I hope he can tell us as clearly as Mason did, when he is ready to move on, but until then, I’ll be purchasing only small bags of dog food and he’ll be wearing an expired license.