At his February 26 recheck appointment, Duke and his family received some great news: His latest round of follow up X-rays showed “no evidence of pulmonary metastasis.” For a cancer that spreads to the lungs in 80% of cases, the results were a huge relief.
“I’m so anxious before each recheck,” said Heidi, Duke’s human mom. “Today, I’m relieved and grateful that his chest x-ray came back clear.”
Duke was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in January 2018 and had amputation surgery to remove the cancerous lesions in his left front leg the same month. Following surgery, he entered a clinical trial. Although he finished chemotherapy in July 2018, he returns to the Flint Animal Cancer Center every three months for X-rays and an exam.
With his latest appointment behind them, Heidi shared what Duke’s been up to since he finished chemo treatment.
“Learning Duke had cancer was devastating,” said Heidi. “My husband and I were realistic about his prognosis, we hoped for the best but understood his diagnosis; we just wanted him to at the very least another summer to enjoy with us in the backyard.”
Now, more than two years after Duke’s diagnosis, the family is thrilled. “The kids love him so much; we love him so much; we are so grateful that he is still part of our family and cherish every day we have with him.”
Duke’s cancer journey has made him a celebrity, especially with the kids’ friends who regularly feature Duke on their Snapchat and Instagram’s. He’s also captured the interest of many strangers. As a result, the family has unexpectedly become ambassadors for pet cancer awareness.
“When we’re out, people see his three legs, and they typically ask us what happened. We use it as an opening to talk about pet cancer, cancer treatment, and clinical trials. We’re proud to share Duke’s story and help educate people, and we always talk about our great experience at CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center.”
While Duke has a flock of admirers, the reality of a partial cruciate ligament tear in his left hind leg limits his mobility.
“We love to spoil Duke, but we’ve had to cut back on the peanut butter and popcorn to help manage his weight,” said Heidi. “Fortunately, he has a new love of organic honey crisp apples.”
Reflecting on the last two years, Heidi is thankful for the clinical trial that has provided them with more time and appreciates every precious day. She also hopes that Duke’s participation in the clinical trial will help other dogs and maybe even people.
“It makes us happy to know that he will leave an important legacy.”
After taking time to mourn the loss of their beloved golden retriever, Bailey, who died of cancer at the age of 10, Heidi and Brad decided the time was right to bring a new fur family member home. They planned to surprise their three girls with the ultimate Christmas gift: a new puppy.
Plans changed in November when the couple learned about a litter of 10-week-old golden retrievers.
“When I went to visit the puppies, there were only two available, a boy and a girl,” said Heidi. “Someone else was considering the female, and when I met this fluffy, adorable 10-week-old little guy, I knew I couldn’t wait until Christmas.” Duke joined their home soon after that first visit in the winter of 2010.
He quickly became the center of the family’s world with his loving and chill personality.
“He is truly a lovable dog; he loves his family and people in general,” shared Heidi and Brad.
“He just has this personality that attracts people,” said Heidi. “I’ve never seen anything like it; strangers are drawn to him and will walk right up to him when we’re out in public.”
Duke also loves when the house is full of guests or when the girls’ friends come to the house to play.
In addition to people, Duke has two other passions. “Duke loves popcorn and peanut butter,” shared the couple’s youngest daughter.
In November 2017, the family noticed a bump on Duke’s left front leg. It didn’t seem to bother him, so they continued to monitor. After returning home from a trip in early January, they noticed the bump had grown significantly. Concerned, they brought Duke to their veterinarian who performed a fine needle aspirate as well as X-rays. The results indicated osteosarcoma or bone cancer. Their veterinarian referred Duke and family to a veterinary oncologist to discuss treatment options. They learned about conventional treatments, as well as clinical trials, particularly two trials at CSU’s Flint Animal Cancer Center.
While taking time to consider the treatment options, Brad talked to his brother, an orthopedic surgeon, who had friends at the Limb Preservation Foundation, an organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of limb-threatening conditions. Through that connection, Brad learned about Dr. Nicole Ehrhart, a surgical oncologist at the Flint Animal Cancer Center, who has collaborated extensively with the Limb Preservation Foundation.
“All signs seemed to be pointing us to CSU,” said Brad.
The family visited CSU’s Flint Animal Cancer Center a few days later with intention of pursuing a clinical trial.
“We really wanted to participate in a clinical trial,” said Brad. “We hoped it would help Duke as well as other dogs and possibly people in the future.”
During their first visit, they met with members of the clinical trials team to learn more about the center’s current clinical trials for patients with osteosarcoma. Pending the results of additional testing, the family considered two different trials. The goal of the first study is to investigate the effectiveness of a Listeria vaccine in delaying/preventing the spread of cancer following amputation and chemotherapy.
The goal of the second trial is to determine if dogs with osteosarcoma treated with chemotherapy protocols based on the sensitivity of the individual patient’s cancer cells will have better outcomes compared to standard treatment. Prior to enrolling in either trial, Duke would need to have his front leg amputated to remove the primary tumor.
That day, the family also met with surgical oncologist, Dr. Deanna Worley, to learn more about Duke’s upcoming surgery.
“We were surprised and grateful that we had a chance to talk to Duke’s surgeon before the procedure,” said Brad. “She was very informative and explained what the experience would be like, how things would go. She answered our questions and was very reassuring. After that conversation, we knew Duke was in good hands.”
Three days later, following a successful surgery, Duke returned home to his family. Although he tired easily the first few days, it didn’t take Duke long to get used to life as a tripawd.
“Through all of this, it’s amazing how resilient and happy Duke has remained,” said Brad.
Ultimately, Duke’s family decided to enroll in the COXEN clinical trial, which personalizes Duke’s chemotherapy protocol based on his specific tumor characteristics. The COXEN algorithm to detect drug sensitivity of cancer cells is proven in people, and clinicians at the Flint Animal Cancer Center are working to prove its efficacy in veterinary patients like Duke too. Duke started the trial three weeks after his surgery, receiving his first dose of doxorubicin, a type of chemotherapy. He returned three weeks later for blood work and his first dose of carboplatin, another type of chemo medication. To follow the clinical trial protocol, Duke will return every three weeks for several months to receive alternating doses of chemotherapy drugs. The clinical trials team will also monitor his blood work to ensure the chemotherapy isn’t compromising his white blood cell count and perform X-rays to watch for metastasis.
“The clinical trials team is really impressive,” said Brad. “They are quick to follow up and answer questions and are clearly dedicated to Duke’s care.”
“Duke is an incredible, trusting, and lovable boy,” said Lindsay Carroll, clinical trials technician. “Even if he isn’t feeling well, he manages to make everyone around him happy. We are grateful to have him enrolled in a clinical trial with us.”
Five months after surgery, Duke is doing well. He continues to enjoy his family, (shorter) walks, visits from people, and, of course, peanut butter and popcorn. “His personality has remained the same as it has always been,” said Brad.
“I would recommend CSU to anyone whose pet is diagnosed with cancer,” said Brad.
“Initially, this was a scary diagnosis to wrap our heads around, but after meeting Duke’s surgeon and the clinical trials staff, we were really put at ease. Everyone is truly committed to providing the best care and outcome possible for Duke, and that means a lot.”
Each year, approximately 8,000 dogs are diagnosed with osteosarcoma. The median survival rate for patients receiving standard of care is approximately 12 months. Clinical trials, such as the COXEN study, are looking at better ways to treat osteosarcoma and provide a longer and better quality of life for pet patients, with the goal of also helping people.