A couple of days back, I posted a fairly personal piece recounting my delight in Colin’s recent discovery that he has two best friends living right under his very roof. That article was born from a picture Andi took of Colin enjoying a moment’s victory at having successfully lured Abby into his bed. (Had we rolled film and presented the real-time play-by-play, there’s no way that picture would have warranted a thousand words as Abby was up and down in a flash). Still, his plans persist. In an unrelated story, the search for our lost roast continues.
I had originally planned to peg the contents of today’s post on A Boy and His Dog but I thought better of it. For starters, this situation was still developing and I really didn’t have a great deal of info to share. Plus, this is one of those times where reality stages a home invasion, pistol whips you and then departs in a flash, leaving you dazed, angry and confused. I didn’t think it made for a good post-script on what began as a true-life feel good story.
“Now we come to the other boy in this story… and the other dog.”
That’s the sentence I wrote before turning back and erasing the destination from the map. The other boy is of course, me, but that’s not important right now. The other dog is Chatham… and she is of paramount importance.
I’ll set the table.
In early September, I took a week’s vacation to coincide with Colin’s first days at Kindergarten. As I’ve written previously, I wanted to be there alongside Andi and Aria as Colin turned his back on us and never looked back. (Parents!!! We’re such masochists). As prelude to his big step forward, we decided to bring the kids up to North Conway for one last hurrah at Story Land – our way of saluting a pretty sweet (and fleet) summer.
The day before we were scheduled to depart for Andi’s Dad’s lake house in Maine (which would be our staging area), Chatham (our beloved 6-year old black lab) happened to trot by my view at the very moment my eyes were turned downward (no doubt inspecting another scratch on our newly finished hardwoods). Something grabbed my eye. On her right rear leg, just above the ‘reverse knee’ (I don’t know what you call it and I am too lazy to Google or research but you know what I’m talking about, that weird backwards bend in their legs) – anyway, I noticed a quarter-sized bald patch. Knowing that she has had “hot spots” in the past (usually during the summer), where an itch will prompt her to slightly gnaw at a troublesome area, I didn’t give it much mind and made a mental note to check it later. My eyes then repaired to the floor again. It’s funny – the stupid inconsequential things we worry about until reality reminds us there are far graver concerns out there.
Later that evening, Andi approached me and asked if I noticed a bump on Chatham’s hind leg. I confirmed that I had and asked when she saw it. It turns out, Andi had a similar experience as I did (although she wasn’t playing Andi Humphries – Freaked Out Floor Inspector). We both thought it was odd that we noticed this on the exact same day leading us to believe that the bump had just shown up. Meaning, it could be almost anything – from a cyst, to an infection, to a bug bite or beyond and would require keeping a close eye on. We called the vet, inked an appointment for the following Tuesday and then headed on our way to Maine.
That Tuesday, after we saw Colin off, I brought Chatham to the vet for a review. They had a good idea, almost instantly, what it was. A mast cell tumor, they told me. Very common in dogs – mostly boxers – but Labrador Retrievers are one of the breeds on the watch list as well. From what I understand, mast cells are naturally present in a dog’s biology and play a role in their immune system. In some dogs, these cells can go off book and begin acting inappropriately, attacking good cells around them. You know where I am going with this.
The doctor gave me the whole run down of what to expect. She said that we could have a sample taken but because of the delicate nature of these tumors, sometimes the disturbance created by a needle can cause the bad cells to push further in the body and potentially the blood stream. Their recommendation was to simply have the tumor removed and then they could perform a biopsy to see if we were dealing with a cyst or a tumor and if the latter – if it is benign or malignant. We set the date and a week later, Chatham was operated on.
Now, with the surgery, the doctors prefer to excise the full mass plus 2cm of skin surrounding it to insure that they capture any rogue cells that may be pushing forth in conquest. As Chatham’s lump was located on her right hind leg, there wasn’t a lot of real estate there from which to get the mass and the surrounding skin and have enough skin left to seal the area. Therefore, they couldn’t get the desired buffer zone.
The sample was sent to the lab and the results came back fairly quickly. The mass was indeed a Mast Cell tumor and was cancerous. These tumors are ranked from I to III – with I being the best case scenario and III being close to terminal. Chatham’s came back as a II meaning things could go either way. The cancer may stop spreading or it might recur. It may be benign or it may be malignant. We got the worse answer you could ever hear.
“We just don’t know.”
As doctors have to sometimes do, they gave us the whole gamut of possibilities that lay ahead. Everything from no further treatment necessary to possible amputation of the leg. The mental image of my beloved pup – the little black dog who I first met rooting around in the breeder’s slipper – the ebony puppy that charmed the denizens of Bar Harbor, Maine when Andi and I took the dogs camping during the summer we discovered she was pregnant – the image of a dog, still in her prime, hobbling around on three legs and failing to find the mental faculties necessary to truly understand what had happened to her – all of that just nailed me hard. Families like ours, who bring dogs into their homes as the first step to starting a family, will often wield the old saw – “It’s practice for when we have kids.” Of course, you’re always met with a scoff by knowing parents who keep secret the tenet that there is a wide gulf between raising a puppy and nurturing a child. But there’s no countering the fact that dogs are family. As Sam “the Man” Jackson said in Pulp Fiction – “A dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way…”
Anyway, we chased the worst case scenario and were encouraged to seek out a consultation with a canine oncologist (doggie cancer doc) to have them review the lab work and offer their prognosis and recommendations for further treatment if necessary.
Earlier this week, Chatham attended her 4th doc’s visit in 3 weeks. We went right to the specialists at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, MA. They kept her for the day and performed a battery of tests – reviewing the lab results, checking the area where the tumor was removed, running blood work, X-Rays of her entire body and an ultrasound.
They were very good and thorough and had full results to us by the end of the day. The good news is the rest of her body, and her health, checked out wonderfully. We had located some strange lumps, here and there over the past year or so, that were under the skin and had always been assured that they were just harmless fatty deposits. Our pooch was once a slight shade of porker but has slimmed considerably over the last couple of years. Well, the Tufts visit officially confirmed that prior diagnosis – meaning the cancer was limited, for the time, to the area we had addressed.
In looking at the labs, they too saw tendrils of bad mast cells beginning to creep towards the margins of the sample that was removed. Again, it proved inconclusive if they would continue their march or if they had stopped now that the tumor was gone.
We were advised of our options. We could do nothing and hope for the best – that it would not recur or worse, spread, and that Chatham would continue living out the many years she has coming to her.
Or, we could begin radiation therapy on the area – which carries a very high percentage rate of completely eradicating any stranded cells and insuring that the cancer is good and dead. The treatment would be localized meaning Chatham would suffer some side-effects but mostly contained to that small area on the back of her leg. She would require 16 to 19 treatments – beginning with one full day prep and then continuing each business day (one hour) until the treatments were completed. She would lose fur in that area and if it grows back, it would come in without pigment – meaning our pitch-black pup would have a little Sixth Sense spot to augment the strands of grey that are starting to work their way through her coat. She would also experience some pain towards the end of the treatment, which they described as being similar to a bad sunburn. That would fade after a week or two and then she would be back to normal with a nice prognosis for a full recovery and a healthy life ahead.
Lumpectomy – $550.00
Oncologist Consultation – $820.00
Radiation Therapy – $4200.00
Saving Chatham’s Life – Priceless
Yeah, the costs are staggering and really sucker-punched us. I wrote the other day about how, in these early days of child rearing (when one full-time job floats the boat), weird bills can threaten to sink it all. This was a nice, solid shot across the bow. At the same time, being given the choice of playing with someone’s life (Human? Canine? – still a family member) and making a determination of whether they stay or go, can bring you to your knees. For this decision, we could scrape and make it work. I shudder to think about the hard decisions we may have had, were those full body tests to come back differently. Best not to proceed down that path.
As an aside, I do firmly believe that if we swapped the patient with someone like (oh – I don’t know) ME – Andi might have had to think long and hard about whether she was making the right call. That life insurance policy sure could deck out our kitchen quite nicely. Finally, Granite Counter Tops!!! I’m sure they’d etch a little memoriam as tribute to me.
Her treatments start next Monday and will run for a few weeks. Aside from the stellar costs, we also have a fair bit of ferrying to and fro that we need to work into the busy day-to-day schedule. The hospital is close to my office meaning I can drop her off in the morning and then Andi and Aria will make a daily trek to pick her up at lunchtime before getting Colin after school. It’s a small measure of hardship for the great joy she brings to our life.
I ended up telling a few people at work about the expense and those with dogs instantly knew which direction we chose. Chatham is a young dog. If she were 11 or 12, then maybe we’d have to peer down that dark alley. But, at 6 and healthy in every other way, this was a complete no-brainer. This is what they call sacrifice. Sure, we may have to postpone the first Disney trip out a year or two but that’s a small measure to save the life of someone near and dear to us.
Andi knew her mind was made up when she first dropped Chatham off for this visit. As she and Aria were exiting the building, they looked back at Chatham who was walking alongside the doctor. At that moment, Chatham looked back with those sad puppy-dog eyes this species knows how to turn on whenever they want an extra round of ball toss or a handful of your Cheez-Its – and looked deep into her as if to telepathically implore, “Don’t leave me.”
Chats, we won’t if you won’t.