My Dark Cloud: Dealing with A Pet’s Cancer Diagnosis

A person with metastatic breast cancer discusses the emotional experience of learning that her dog, Heidi, was diagnosed with cancer.

Lately, I feel like the dark clouds are following me. I’m still searching for rainbows as I wait for the clouds to lift, signaling brighter days ahead. My seven-year-old miniature Schnauzer, Heidi, suddenly and very abruptly became sick. One day she was her happy-go-lucky self and then the very next day, she was having severe diarrhea and vomiting. It took a few weeks and several vet visits to figure out what was wrong with Heidi...

Cancer has struck us once again. This time, small intestinal canine lymphoma.

Heidi’s lymphoma was found by our local vet through an ultrasound and biopsy. Unfortunately, there are very few veterinary oncologists nearby, and the ones that are nearby either didn’t have an appointment available in the near future or were not accepting new pet patients from out of the area. I called seven different veterinary oncologists from Santa Barbara to Pasadena within about a 100-mile radius of my home. I was feeling pretty discouraged after the seventh phone call, not having any success in finding someone to help us. That last call I made was to a veterinary specialist in Studio City, 55 miles from home, who just so happened to have a cancellation. With no hesitation I took the appointment.

In some ways my own cancer diagnosis has prepared me to deal with Heidi’s cancer diagnosis. Last week, Heidi was seen in Studio City by the veterinary oncologist. When we had our veterinary oncology appointment, I felt I understood the treatment options better than I would have had I not been so well versed in the cancer realm. The oncologist took a lot of time explaining the different treatment plans we could choose for Heidi, from the least invasive and least effective to the most invasive and most effective and also most expensive. After hearing what the options were, we decided to try a chemotherapy injection of Elspar (L-asparaginase) and a steroid, prednisone. If she does well over the next week, she will start a chemo pill called CCNU (lomustine). Our other options were a chemotherapy infusion regimen called CHOP given weekly for six months consisting of a combination of Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), Adriamycin (doxorubicin), oncovin (vincristine) and prednisone.

The crazy thing to me is that I have been personally treated with two of these chemotherapy agents in the CHOP protocol for my metastatic breast cancer. I am quite familiar with how they affected me, and I can’t imagine putting my dog Heidi through that, even though they say it affects dogs differently and some have no side effects. She is such a sweet, sensitive girl. I think the treatment would ultimately end up making her feel worse, which is not our goal. I also understand all too well that her prognosis is not great. Our hope and goal for Heidi is to live out the remainder of her days happy and pain free. I want for Heidi what I want for myself and for anyone living with cancer: good quality of life and some extra time.

It has now been seven days on the steroids and anti-nausea pills and seven days since the anti-cancer injection. Her spark seems to be returning ever so slowly. She once again is getting excited to go for a ride in the car. She’s starting to have an appetite again. Her bark is not as loud as it once was, although she is now making more of an effort to bark. These all seem to be good signs that she is still happy. At her one-week follow up appointment, Heidi was given her first chemotherapy pill. Next week she’ll have her CBC (complete blood count) blood draw to check her white blood cells, platelets, etc. These all the same counts I routinely have monitored for my own treatment – I will have my own blood drawn within days of Heidi. Two weeks following the blood draw, she will be given her second dose of the chemotherapy pill.

For now, Heidi seems to be feeling more like her old self and we continue to chase after rainbows and squirrels, sniff the interesting smells of our surroundings, eat only the best treats and enjoy our time together. Eventually, Heidi will become resistant to this treatment, just as I will become resistant to my treatment. There are no guarantees in this life. There never were. Maybe my dark cloud is just passing through, maybe it’s lifting. I’ll take what I can get and try to make the most of it before it’s her time to cross that rainbow bridge.

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