It was Black Dog Day at the veterinary hospital.
There was Daphne, an ebony pup with a bobbed tail and a playful personality. Owner Trish said she was 4. Across the room was a handsome purebred Black Lab. He was also 4, his owner said, though I didn’t catch either of their names.
Then there was our Koli. Koli is part Black Lab, part shepherd and part border collie and, except for a small white “bib” on her chest, she’s all black, too.
But as we chatted in the waiting area, Trish and I and the Black Lab’s owner discovered our dogs had more in common than the color of their coats.
All three of them have lymphoma. Cancer.
And all of us were at New England Veterinary Oncology for the same reason: our dogs are getting chemotherapy in hopes we can keep these much-loved members of our families in our lives. For at least a little more time.
My husband Hank and I adopted Koli in July 2012 from a South Coast shelter.
We were just days past the wrenching loss of Kessy, our Yellow Lab (also a rescue). She’d suffered a massive seizure and 18 hours and $2,000 later at an emergency clinic, it was clear she wouldn’t recover. We had to let her go.
While we knew we’d get another dog, when we heard about Koli (whose name then was “Martha”) I wasn’t sure I was ready.
Still, Hank and I went to check her out. Because of his stroke disability, he couldn’t easily get inside so they brought Martha out to the car where he was waiting.
Wagging her tail, she immediately leapt in.
As Hank tells it, “She jumped into my car and jumped into my heart.”
Clearly, it was love at first sight for the two of them — and I wasn’t far behind.
Koli, as we soon renamed her, came home with us that day and almost immediately it felt like she’d always been there.
As I’ve done with every new addition, we paid a visit to our long time vets at Anchor Animal Hospital in Dartmouth. Except for a slight upper respiratory infection, Koli was in good health. The shelter folks said she was 2 or 3 and our Anchor vets said that sounded about right.
I looked forward to her being with us for a long time.
That said, one hard lesson I’d learned from Kessy’s death was that I should have gotten pet insurance. I didn’t want to make the same mistake with Koli so I moved quickly.
After some research, I chose one that covered The Big Stuff, though not routine checkups. While I was at it, I also decided to insure our two cats. All told, it came to about $90 a month for our three furry “kids.”
Over the next couple of years, things went along just fine. Koli had regular checkups and, aside from having her teeth cleaned a year or so ago, there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Then in mid-March, I noticed the sides of her snout looked puffy. I thought maybe she had a doggie sinus infection but since she was acting fine and eating well, I wasn’t that worried. However, I felt it best to get her checked out. I called Anchor and made an appointment.
I guess I maybe had a fleeting thought that Something Really Bad was wrong. But I attributed that to the fact close friends had learned a couple weeks earlier that their dog had a cancerous tumor. Hank and I were heartbroken for them.
Soon I would be heartbroken for us.
On Saturday, March 21, a couple of days after I’d noticed the swelling, we were at Anchor, seeing Dr. Jill Robertson. It was the first time we’d met but she was great with both Koli and me. I pointed out the lumps on Koli’s snout and Dr. Jill took her temp.
Normal. A good thing. At least I thought so at first.
Then Dr. Jill began a back to front, front to back exam, feeling the mirror sides of Koli’s body. I watched as she felt under Koli’s “arms,” her back legs and everything in between and I started to get a sick feeling.
I asked her what she thought was wrong. She said there were several possibilities, everything from infection to lymphoma. To confirm a diagnosis, she asked to do bloodwork, a chest x-ray and extract fluid from some lymph nodes.
I said yes, but I also wanted to know what her gut was telling her. I’m basically an optimist but I’m also a realist. I wanted to know what we were facing.
Dr. Jill answered me honestly: her gut told her Koli had lymphoma. Then she had me feel the swollen lumps all over Koli’s body; the lymph nodes on her snout were just the most obvious.
The good news, she said, is that it’s the most common cancer in dogs and one that is often treatable, not in terms of a cure but in getting them into remission with quality of life.
The bad news: without treatment, Koli would probably die within a month or two.
Still, she stressed that until the tests came back, there was the possibility that it was an infection, not lymphoma. But with Koli not running a fever, I doubted that.
My gut, too, told me it was lymphoma and on Thursday, March 28, one week after I’d first noticed Koli’s facial swelling, the pathology reports made it official.
As Hank and I waited for the results, I said lots of prayers to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. We also talked about what we should do.
During most of those conversations, I ended up crying. That’s why I told hardly anyone what was going on. I couldn’t talk about it without tears and, besides, I was still trying to wrap my brain around it. It seemed almost surreal and definitely unfair. Here we were giving an abandoned dog a good life so why were we being punished?
In many ways, I felt like I did when Hank had his stroke 10 years ago: Why was this happening to us? What did we do to deserve this?
But, as Hank says, everyone gets something and whining doesn’t change things. So, I focused on what our next steps should be. While Koli was getting a little lethargic, she didn’t look to us like a dog ready to call it quits. We’ve been there and had to do that with other of our pets.
So we agreed we wanted to try and do something and after conferring with Dr. Robertson, chemo seemed like Koli’s best bet.
On Tuesday, March 31, Koli and I went to New England Veterinary Oncology Group in Waltham. In the last few days preceding that, I’d noticed a decline; Koli was acting more and more tired and her appetite had fallen off dramatically. But she was happy to hop into the car and head up to NEVOG.
Actually, I’d been there five years earlier with Snowey, one of our cats. Snowey had a terrible squamous cell skin cancer on the left side of his face, but even though it looked nasty, our vets assured us it wasn’t painful. Given that he was otherwise healthy, I couldn’t put him down, so I opted for radiation treatments.
Dr. Michelle Silver, Snowey’s NEVOG vet, was wonderful, kind and compassionate. So was the entire staff. The end result was another good year with Snowey.
I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
And now, here I was back again, this time with Koli, sure this was where we should be.
Within 10 minutes of our arrival, we were greeted by Dr. Kim Cronin. She guided us into an exam room; since Anchor had forwarded our info, she knew why we were there. But she encouraged me to tell her what was going on. I did.
One of the first things she said was that I shouldn’t beat myself up for not having noticed sooner that something was wrong. (I didn’t say it but was thinking that.) She explained that lymphoma is insidious and can move incredibly quickly, making a healthy dog sick with frightening speed.
Dr. Cronin said that based on her initial examination, Koli was either Stage 3 or 4 lymphoma, Stage 5 being the worst. A subsequent x-ray, showing enlargement of the spleen and some fluid around her lungs put Koli at Stage 4.
The vet also pointed out that there are two types of lymphoma: B-cell and T-cell. “B is better, T is tougher.” While the test would cost about $180 and had to be sent to a special lab in the Southwest, I knew I wanted to know. (It was B and Dr. Cronin later happily called to tell me.)
Whatever form Koli had, Dr. Cronin said she was still a good candidate for chemo and a short-term course of steroids. That said, she was frank about the cost. Depending on how Koli responded, I could be looking at at least $3,000.
I told her that’s why I got the insurance (after a $500 deductible, it will pay up to 90 percent.)
One thing I want to make absolutely clear: there was no pressure, no guilt, no “You owe this to your pet.” as Dr. Cronin outlined the options. Quite the contrary, she, like Dr. Silver with Snowey, stressed there was no “right” road to take. Choosing one over another wouldn’t mean loving a dog or a cat any less.
Fortunately, I was in a position to make the choice I wanted.
That day, Koli started the first of what have been weekly treatments. She got a shot of a drug called L’asparaginase, plus a short-acting steroid to jump-start things and a month’s supply of prednisone, starting at 40 mg a day for Week 1, 30 mg for Week 2, etc. and gradually cutting back over the course of 30 days. She’s now at 20 mg.
Dr. Cronin couldn’t have been better but with Koli in line for multiple rounds of chemotherapy, I asked to schedule them at NEVOG’s satellite site at Cape Cod Veterinary in Buzzards Bay. It’s much closer to our Dartmouth home and a much less stressful drive than Route 128 to Waltham.
Dr. Cronin was instantly accommodating. Before I knew it, the staff had booked four weeks of appointments and Koli and I were in the car and on our way back to SouthCoast.
What amazed me is that almost immediately, I saw a difference in her. Koli even ate a dog cookie, something she’d turned her nose up at that very morning. And 90 minutes later, when we drove into our yard, she was close to ravenous.
Maybe we could get our dog back …
Two days later, on my April 2 birthday, Hank and I toasted the fact that Koli was still with us.
Just a few days earlier, I wasn’t sure she would be.
Yesterday marked four weeks since our unexpected journey into Canine Cancerland began.
Since our initial visit at NEVOG Waltham, Koli has had two follow-ups in Buzzards Bay with Dr. Andy Abbo and other very caring staff, who make the trip there on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was during the first of our appointments there that I met the two other black dog owners and we compared notes about lymphoma.
When we went last Tuesday, I met a third — an Iraq/Afghanistan veteran who was there with Jack, his 11-year-old buddy and ex-cattle dog.
Like the rest of us, Jack’s dad is fighting a war he never expected.
All three of the other dogs are ahead of Koli in their treatments and all are doing well. So is Koli. About the worst side effect she’s had is excessive panting, due largely to the prednisone, but that’s diminished as the dosage has decreased. And, oh yeah, she’s had to pee. A lot.
But all in all, it’s pretty minor. Unlike humans, dogs have few side effects from the chemo. Nausea and diarrhea can occur but Koli hasn’t had those problems. Though I have to admit I held my breath this past Tuesday when I had to don plastic gloves to give her something called cytoxan. (Given its toxicity, a NEVOG tech stressed I shouldn’t touch the capsules.)
Koli was fine. Indeed, I don’t want to jinx anything but with each passing day, she is looking and acting more like her old self. Her coat is shiny, she’s perky, she’s eager for long walks — and every time I’m in the kitchen, she’s right there, looking at me with those big brown eyes, knowing I’ll give her a treat.
If she wasn’t spoiled pre-lymphoma (she was!) she certainly is now. Her Favorite New Food is $14-a-pound roast beef.
Of course, I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I didn’t talk about The Elephant in the Room: How long will Koli live?
The answer is we don’t know. The vets tell us that some dogs live months while others are in remission for a year, 18 months or more. Like people with cancer, it’s hard to predict. Like people with cancer, some canines beat the odds.
We’ll likely know more over the next few weeks as Koli continues her treatments.
In the meantime, Hank and I are trying to focus on the here and now and enjoy the quality time we’re getting with a dog who grabbed hold of our hearts and never let go.
For however long we are together.
Story reposted from:
By Susan Pawlak-Seaman