I live with a cancer survivor.
Those of you who follow this Blog may recount the episode our family went through a few years ago, when Chatham – our precious eight year-old black lab pup – contracted the dreaded disease.
It was during a playful, peaceful sojourn to my father-in-law’s lake house in Maine, when I was tossing a ball into the water to the delight of Abby and Chatham and caught a glimpse of something that would rock our world quite a bit. It turns out, that tiny bump of flesh protruding through the fur on her right rear hind leg was a mast cell tumor – a cancerous mass that needed to be extricated immediately.
Because a dog’s hind leg is so narrow and thin, Chatham couldn’t give up the normal one-inch radius of skin that the oncologist would normally like to gather to insure they’d isolated the menace; so began a one-month stint of daily radiation therapy. It was a treatment that came with sizable sticker shock, but was all worth it for the grateful look in her eyes each and every morning.
You can’t put a price on unconditional love.
Ever since that dread October, things have looked up although Chatham has certainly lost a step. Once a playful pup who delighted in tormenting her adoptive sister Abby (a nine year-old yellow); Chatham had slowed a bit. She was like a catcher returning from major reconstructive knee surgery. She still knew the game but wasn’t as quick as she once was. And so, while we could get her up to normal lab speed from time to time, her days had slowed a bit.
While her sister scampered around the back yard; launching a blitzkrieg attack at every errant Frisbee; Chatham preferred to take in the view – leisurely wandering around the yard, hunting acorns, sticks and generally just grazing – our own little canine cow.
But although she had slowed down, she hadn’t lost that frisky fire in her eyes. She continued to look at us with love and adoration – and when caught indoors, she’ll roll on her back, start whacking at you with her ever whitening paws, and play as if she hadn’t aged a day beyond puppyhood.
What we lost in youthful vigor, we gained in ever-mounting memories. After all, she was just six years old when that vile mark marred her skin. Much too soon to say goodbye. And though her jet black face has displayed increasing streaks of white and gray; her beaming countenance continues to grace the various family photo ops we all gather ’round for.
That’s what we bought back then when we swallowed our own reservations and grabbed for the debit card. We couldn’t do this every time out but at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do – no matter the cost. Can’t put a price on family.
But with all cancer, it always seems like every day after is living on borrowed time. Some travel a normal natural life span; having successfully licked it – while others, unfortunately, get to enjoy a few more sunsets before twilight descends again. I think no matter which camp you set your tent in, there’s always that nagging notion that something is still scratching away out there in the woods. It’s all a matter of shining your light as bright as can be and keeping it at bay as long as possible.
We’re fumbling in the dark, once again.
Over the past few weeks, Andi and I had grown concerned for Chats. While her energy levels have been fine; normal for her these days, her demeanor had altered slightly. Nothing major that you could really pinpoint but she had grown a bit finicky which is strange for a lab. After all, these beasts will eat anything that wanders before their snout and I’ve had plenty of party guests who’ve made the mistake of clutching a sandwich in hand, casually relaxing their guard only to realize they are noshing on a fistful of nothing when they attempted to reintroduce the snack to their pie hole. Abby will usually just beg but if Chats is on the prowl, she’ll stealthily grab that goodie and gobble it up before you knew what hit you.
Hey, she’s a great dog in every other phase of the game so we forgave her if she could be a remorseless little eating machine.
Until she wasn’t.
That’s what tipped us off that something was wrong. About three weeks ago, I had followed my normal morning routine – bringing the dogs downstairs where their food is kept – filling up their bowls – and then returning to the main quarters to start getting breakfast ready. Usually by the time I’ve entered the kitchen, the labs are at my back, begging for scraps.
On this particular morning, I walked into the kitchen and found Chatham already there. She had apparently taken the other entrance and must have come up the stairs right after me. I ran back to the basement and found Abby finishing the last kernels of her food.
Strange… but I just chalked it up that she wasn’t hungry. And with no other symptoms to latch onto, I just stashed it away.
A couple days later, Andi asked if I’d seen Chatham eating her food recently. She suspected Abby was eating it… and we actually started to think that maybe Abby was bullying her way in. It would have been completely out of character for both of them but these are animals… you never know if they are going to change one day. Hey – we all do sometimes!!!
We decided to feed them separately and under this new strategy, it didn’t take us long to realize that Chatham was not swallowing one bite. So, we called the vet and they suggested we try a new brand – which is exactly what we did.
For a day or two, Chatham devoured each bowl we placed before her. She was ravenous and probably for good reason as aside from some dog treats and the daily “scraps” I slide her (no matter how many times someone in this house tries to make me quit the habit); she hadn’t had anything of substance.
And then – when the novelty of this new food wore off, she turned up her nose at that too.
We had to get to the bottom of this. Playing Junior Detective, we started toying with the idea that maybe her teeth were bothering her – as we noticed she would leave bits of kibble strewn around her bowl. This was a dog used to inhaling every last ounce, so it was strange to see her leaving leftovers for Abby to clean.
This past Monday, I took Chatham to the vet to have them check her teeth. After a quick exam, she got a clean bill of health – must be all those bones she’s always cleaning her teeth with. Either that or the Trident (3 out of 4 Dentists would recommend that you don’t let your dog chew gum).
With the teeth excused from the equation, the doctor decided to get to the bottom of our mystery and gave her the once over. While she has a fair share of “fatty tumors” – soft masses that you can feel under her skin, these are considered benign so the doctor didn’t seem too concerned.
Just as she was completing the exam, she came across a mass underneath Chatham’s left hind leg (on the inside, where the leg connects to the body – meaning in a place you’d never, ever see or detect). And it was hard and rigid – so much so that when I was guided to it, I thought I was feeling her bone.
The vet took a sample and put it under the microscope. Within moments she’d calculated the sum of all my fears. It was cancerous and it did not look good. Not only that; it is large and in a spot that is difficult for surgery.
Before leaving, she gave us a referral to return to Tufts Veterinary in Grafton, MA based on the strength of their oncology services. It helps that they know Chatham – having given her a second chance at life once before.
And now they’re about to get a return visit.
But right now, everything is completely unknown. We have a preliminary diagnosis from our local vet but we value the expert opinion. That said, it’s two years later and this dog isn’t as young as she once was. No so much in actual calendar years but in those obscure life marks.
So we may have to think.
~ Just as I wrote that last sentence, Chatham came nosing her way into the office and just stared at me; sweeping the day up with the rhythmic helicopter thumping of her tail. These dogs – they think they can wag all our worries away. Some days, I think they can. ~
But other days it’s not enough. Other days we need to hunker down and think long and hard.
…as hard as that might be.