This is the story of a man and his dog. The twist is that the man and his dog both came down with cancer. Together, they nursed each other back to health….
The story really begins in June of 2008. The man in the story is me; my name is Rob. My wife, Codie, and I were living in Las Vegas and had just put down our dear sweet 13 year old Golden Retriever the month before. The dog’s name was Shelby and she was an amazing dog. Like most Goldens, she was quirky and loveable. At the time of her passing, we were devastated with grief and a sense of emptiness. Still, we both figured it would be a while before we let another dog in to our hearts. It seemed like a good, long grieving period would be the best way to honor Shelby.
As the empty weeks passed, Codie one day entered “las vegas golden retrievers” into a Google search. To her knowledge, there weren’t any Golden breeders in Vegas. Well, not only did Google find a local match but the breeders had a litter of four puppies almost ready to go home. After a short discussion, we decided it couldn’t hurt to look at the puppies. We called the breeders and made an appointment for the following day. You can probably guess the rest…
Two weeks later, we brought Gracie home. Gracie shook in Codie’s lap and seemed a bit unsure of her new surroundings. I even worried Gracie might not have the personality of her “sister” who had gone to Doggie Heaven. Boy, were we ever wrong! It soon became clear that, if anything, Gracie had almost too much personality. She was inevitably compared with her departed “sister” and we could tell Gracie was going to be much more of a challenge. Whereas Shelby had been great on a leash, Gracie fought it like a wild animal. Whereas Shelby got her “home alone” privileges at 8 months, Gracie wasn’t even close to being trustworthy at two years. Still, even with all her “deficiencies”, it was apparent that, deep down, Gracie was a sweet girl with a lovable personality. She was just a little out of control!!
Codie and I discovered the Gentle Leader and Gracie became a better walker. Gracie needed exercise at least twice a day to try and tamp down her puppy exuberance. Even with walks and runs, Gracie would get fired up and do her “psycho-dog” routine every evening. She would get a look in her eyes and begin her nightly routine of running, twirling, barking and humping (yes, humping). The only way to calm Gracie down was for us to go to bed. As a result, we were often turning in by 9 o’clock. Gracie was such a handful we wondered if and when she would ever turn the corner to maturity. In the times she wasn’t driving “her parents” crazy, Gracie was surprisingly willing to go into her crate or dog run. In spite of her wild ways, we could see that Gracie loved other dogs (ANY other dogs) and was great with kids and seniors. And so, as much as Gracie exasperated us, she began to worm her way into our hearts.
When Gracie was a year and a half old, a “bump” popped up on the back of her right rear leg. Our vet took one look at it and said, “That’s got to come off.” The lump was removed a day or two later and the vet thought he had gotten decent margins. A vet tech described the lump as “nasty” and that worried us a bit. Gracie came home with stitches and a cone. A few days later, we got a call from the vet….the lump was Mast Cell cancer. For those not familiar with Mast Cell, mast cells are an integral and necessary part of every dog’s immune system. They consist of large amounts of histamine, heparin, and proteolytic enzymes (enzymes which break down protein). These have a toxic effect on foreign invaders, like parasites, and are released when the normal mast cell is triggered by the immune system. Unfortunately mast cell cancer allows large, uncontrolled amounts of histamine, heparin, and enzymes to be released into the dog’s body that will have adverse effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and other body functions. If not stopped, this constant release can kill your dog.
The next step for Gracie was to find out if the cancer had spread. If it had all been removed with her tumor, all would be good. If not, the prognosis would be much worse. Our vet harvested some lymph nodes, which would be checked for cancer. We told ourselves the cancer couldn’t have possibly spread, since we had the lump removed immediately and also because we had such high regard for our vet. About a week later, we got the news…the cancer had spread and it was classified as Stage II.
Our world was turned upside down but, looking into Gracie’s dark brown eyes, we knew we would do whatever it took to make her well. Even with 30 years of experience, our vet had never seen a dog get cancer at such a young age. He suggested an ultrasound of Gracie’s spleen would provide more information. So, of course, I took her in for the ultrasound. As I sat in the waiting room, a vet tech came out and said Gracie was doing well. In more of a statement than a question, I said, “You did have to knock Gracie out, didn’t you?” “Oh, no” said the tech, “she’s being a good girl.” I was blown away – this dog that wouldn’t even sit still for a brushing had allowed the vet to shave her tummy and then rub the wand over the area. It was the first, but not last, time I thought that Gracie somehow realized things were not good and would cooperate. Gracie reappeared with her shaved tummy and we went home to await more results.
I had a friend who had months earlier told me of his dog’s experience with another type of cancer. My friend told me of their amazing vet and how the vet had treated his dog when other vets said there was nothing to be done. This particular vet had been dealing with dog cancer for the past 30 years and split his time between Las Vegas, Anchorage, Palm Springs and his home in Fort Collins, Colorado. I decided it couldn’t hurt to call the Las Vegas clinic where he practiced but wondered how could a doctor who was only in town three days a month could treat Gracie. The clinic explained that Dr. Macy was always in email contact and would apprise the other vets of Gracie’s condition and treatment in case there was ever an emergency. I told the clinic we were awaiting the results of Gracie’s ultrasound and that I might call back when I had those results. Before I hung up, the clinic told me “by the way, Dr. Macy is actually here, today and tomorrow.” I thanked them and hung up.
As I sat and worried, it occurred to me the ultra sound was rather superfluous. We knew the cancer had spread. Dr. Macy was in town. Why should we wait? I called the clinic back and got an appointment for later that afternoon. Scared to death, Codie and I took Gracie in. True to form, Gracie lightened the mood a bit by putting her paws on the receptionist’s counter and “demanding” a treat. She got a lot of loving during our short wait for Dr. Macy. After a bit, they called us back….
Dr. Macy came in and we all introduced ourselves. He immediately sat on the floor with Gracie and listened to our account of her history. Gracie liked him right off, as did we. Dr. Macy was familiar with mast cell cancer and had a treatment plan in mind. We talked for nearly an hour. The plan included six months of chemotherapy, a trial drug called Palladia* and numerous other drugs. Codie and I were already feeling better because, if nothing else, we now had a plan. I asked Dr. Macy when the chemo might begin. He looked at his watch and said, “Ten minutes?” And with that, Gracie was hopefully on her way to recovery.
Within another hour, after paying our bill and filling five prescriptions, we were on our way home. Dr. Macy had sounded optimistic that Gracie could beat this. The Palladia was a wildcard – it had showed great promise but 80% of dogs couldn’t tolerate the side effects. Gracie seemed to be pretty unfazed by her first chemo treatment and was ready for her dinner. What she wasn’t ready for was the pills! After the initial struggles, we discovered Pill Pockets and the problem was solved. There were days when Gracie would take eight pills and she was a great little patient. As I said, I think she knew cooperation was important. She threw up occasionally, which always saddened us, but it was hardly the end of the world.
The days, weeks and months passed. Gracie barely slowed down. Every month, we went to see Dr. Macy for Gracie’s chemo and blood draw. It was both sad but also touching that on “Dr. Macy’s days” (at the clinic), you could count on a waiting room full of dogs with cancer. Their owners’ resolve never failed to touch me. Gracie loved Dr. Macy and would always squirm to get the treats she knew he hid in his lab coat. Gracie would (pretty much) willingly go into the back for her chemo. Her blood work was looking pretty good. It was amazing that Gracie could get chemo, have a half hour nap and be ready to chase her Frisbee at the park. For all appearances, she was still a normal puppy.
Fast forward to Spring of 2010. By then, Gracie has had six rounds of chemo and taken hundreds of pills. She did it all in a matter of fact manner and never seemed to get down. She had turned two and, lo and behold, had actually begun to mature! Codie and I were getting ready to retire and move to Salt Lake City. We went to see Dr. Macy for the last time. I asked, “Is Gracie in remission or is she cured?” Dr. Macy said, “We (oncologists) don’t generally use the word cured….but I think she’s cured.” Two and a half years later, Gracie certainly seems cured. She loves Salt Lake City, she loves the snow and she loves all the new friends she has met at the park! She still has a definite wild streak and is tired of hearing how her “sister” would never have done this or that. But she is undeniably sweet and we love her to death.
Basically, that’s Gracie’s cancer story. My cancer story started in early 2011. Codie and I were both retired early, living in our dream house, loving Salt Lake City and ready to embark on the rest of our lives. Somehow, I had gone from being a Firefighter who worked 10 days a month to being “retired” and working two jobs, pretty much seven days of the week. I won’t go into details, but things started to be not quite right with my digestive system. I hoped things would resolve, but when they didn’t, I finally went to see a doctor a couple of months later. The first doctor sent me for a colonoscopy. The colonoscopy doctor found a plum-sized cancerous tumor and sent me immediately to see an oncologist, a radiologist and a surgeon. Just like with Gracie, things were off and running before Codie and I even had time to think. But also like Gracie’s experience, I was glad to immediately find great doctors who seemed to know exactly what to do. I put my trust in those doctors and stayed away from the Internet. With Gracie’s cancer, I had learned there are just too many depressing stories out there that can’t do anyone or any dog any good. For every hopeful story I found about Mast Cell Cancer, I had found two soul crushing stories and I wasn’t about to go through that again. After my initial diagnosis of Stage III rectal cancer, I was sometimes down in the dumps but always felt better when Gracie would snuggle her soft, 75-pound body next to mine.
In June of 2011, I started a six-week regimen of daily radiation and 24/7 chemotherapy. At first, it wasn’t so bad but, as the weeks wore on, it pretty much kicked my butt. Codie was awesome in keeping me as healthy as possible. I don’t know what I would have done without her. But during the times Codie was at work, or running errands or seeing friends, Gracie seemed to know it was her turn to take over. If I was in bed, Gracie was always in the bed with me or lying in the master bath, keeping an eye on me. She seemed to know she had to wait until “Mom” came home and never whined for me to take her out to go potty. Stroking her soft head went a long way toward making me feel better.
After the chemo and radiation, I was given a break prior to a planned surgery to remove what was left of my tumor. My strength returned and life was kind of normal. Gracie and I resumed our daily trips to the park for the Frisbee catching and socializing she loves. At the end of August 2011, I had surgery to remove the tumor and some other stuff, too. After four days in the hospital, Codie brought me home to be greeted by Gracie the Welcoming Party. Gracie seemed to sense her “Dad” was hurting and, rather than jumping all over him, was content to snuggle in the bed. We both slept a lot until I was once again ready to resume trips to the park. I’m convinced I got back to normal a lot quicker than I might have if not for Gracie.
It would have been nice if my cancer story had been over, but it wasn’t. After I got back on my feet, it was time for 24 more weeks of chemo. Yuck! Again, Gracie was always with me if I was in bed and always provided my motivation to get out of bed. That chemo was finished in April of 2012 and the lingering effects are a numbness in my feet and hands. Thanks to Gracie, I am at the park every day, walking and hopefully restoring the nerves and blood flow in my feet. My life has been changed by cancer, both for better and worse, but I’m still alive thanks to great doctors, my wife and, yes, Gracie.
Codie and I learned a lot from watching Gracie battle through her cancer. Gracie never “complained” and took it all in stride. Gracie didn’t do it alone….we helped her with our love, our touch and our checkbook! When I got cancer, one of my first thoughts was “Gracie beat this and so can I.” Gracie inspired me and was with me during the times I felt the worse. There’s no real point in wondering why we got cancer. It was probably in both our genes and unavoidable. We both got well with love and strong medicine. We share an unenviable yet forever bond.
And that is the story of how Gracie and I got cancer and beat cancer…together! Now, if only I could get Gracie to submit to a good brushing. “Her sister” loved to be brushed!
I believe Palladia was the FIRST drug ever developed for canine cancer. In the past, human drugs have been used on dogs.
Robert Greene is a writer living in Utah.