Before I get into our story, I wanted to post some some resources I like if you are faced with Canine Lymphoma.
Fighting Canine Cancer – Georgia’s Legacy has a lot of great information, including clinical trials info, diet information, help finding a specialist, and much more.
Paws 4 A Cure is a non profit that helps pay for pups in need of oncology care from donations by the public. This group was created in loving memory of the founder’s Chow Chow who had the wonderful name of Nikko.
Best support group on earth for those battling Canine Lymphoma – Lymphoma Heart Dogs Group on Facebook. I cannot stress enough, how important it is to have contact with those that are in your shoes. Not only is the support morally strengthening, and uplifting, but the knowledge base is priceless.
Financial help for fighting Cancer – donate or ask for a donation at the Magic Bullet Fund
Lymphoma Heart Dog Angels group on Facebook offers support for those who have lost their battles against Canine Lymphoma. None of us are professional counselors, but the support I found here from others who know the pain and loss of this disease, has been key in helping my recovery. Learning that your intense grief is normal, and there are those that understand was a life saver.
It was October 14, 2008 that I felt the two tiny pea sized lumps under Niko’s jaw. I used to massage his jaw for him, as he often ground his teeth. I knew right away what they were. Niko had had plenty of harmless little fatty deposits – lipomas – over the years, and this felt nothing like a lipoma.
What I “knew” when I heard the diagnosis was that lymphoma killed fast. What I “knew” about chemo was that it would bring him the brink of death. What I “knew” was that I would risk his quality of life by“putting him through” treatment.
I shared the diagnosis with others, along with the hopeless outcome of a 4-6 week life expectancy without treatment. I knew he wouldn’t see his 16th birthday in December, or the holidays. I felt hopeless and angry.
We were lucky, however. A voice of reason came through and burst my ignorance bubble, by arming me with hope and knowledge. Debbie K, from the K9Cushings.com group emailed me the story of her dog Barkley. Barkley, like Niko, was a cush pup. Also like Niko, Barkley was mature in age. He had been diagnosed some years back and treated with a single agent protocol. He bought an additional 20 good months of life post diagnosis. Debbie also informed me that the oncologist they had used had actually moved to Virginia, and was working at SouthPaws. That was the last push I needed, so I scheduled a consult.
We had caught the cancer early. The protocol we chose, was the same as Debbie’s for Barkley. Five rounds of Doxorubicin given 3 weeks apart – assuming blood counts stayed high. Doxorubicin is the “big gun” when fighting lymphoma. It is one of the main players in conventional dog cancer chemo treatments. It also has corresponding side effects that, from time to time, are heavy duty and should be taken into account, which is why so many people doing multi drug protocols fear it more than all the other lymphoma chemo agents.
Niko’s first treatment was on election day in the fall of 2008. Fitting, as his last treatment ended up being on inauguration day, 2009. Knowing I was taking him in was frightening. I second guessed my decision. Was I doing the right thing for HIM? My husband said it best, “Niko would want to fight” he reassured me. He was right! He was nearly 16, but he was such a happy dog and such a warrior thus far. He had too much life to just give in with out trying. I knew then, it was the right choice and I know now it was the right choice. There were a few days in between that I wondered about my choice.
I’m not going to lie and say choosing chemo is an easy decision, or path to follow. It is best described as a roller coaster. There are highs and lows and it will absolutely drain you emotionally. Whether it’s GI issues, refusing to eat, low blood counts – or the highs like finding something they want to eat when they don’t feel good, or finding out the little bump you felt is not a lymph node. It is a fight for their life, and at times, it will rob you of your sanity. As much as you can mentally prepare, you will never fully understand it until you’ve lived it. Your cabinets full of pedialyte, pepcid, cerenia, gasX, baby food, canned pumpkin, chicken broth, fish oil, L-glutamine, milk thistle, and flagyl. You won’t sleep much, or at least not well. It was the most difficult time in my life. However, looking back, I am so glad I made the sacrifices for my Niko. He deserved a chance for more life and I was able to help give him that.
Doxorubicin’s side effects take 3-5 days to manifest. Niko was right on cue. Day 3 was a Friday and he vomited in the morning. I immediately gave him an anti nausea drug. Within 30 minutes, he seemed to feel better and drank a little. He was pretty quiet all of that day and most of the next. He drank, went out, nibbled on food, but mostly just slept. I never left his side.
That first Saturday night after chemo, he came back to life. He was happy, hungry, and energetic. That was a wonderful night. Even better was I could no longer feel his lymph nodes!
Round 2 was three weeks later – Thanksgiving week. Everything went exactly as round 1. Round 3, about 10 days before Christmas, was different. He started getting sick on day 2 and was under the weather for several days after. He had diarrhea and didn’t eat much. I definitely second guessed my decisions again. By the 6th or 7th day, he was back to himself and managed to have a wonderful last Christmas.
I knew it was his last Christmas, and that makes it so difficult. You want to enjoy it, but you are devastated that each of these moments will not come again. We went on many walks with his jingle bell collar jingling. We stuck many Christmas bows on him. I fed him extra goose and stuffing. I know that he enjoyed the holiday, which helped me enjoy him.
Niko’s fourth and final treatment was delayed until mid January. I wanted to be sure he was doing well and completely recovered from his GI issues from the last treatment. I had talked to the oncologist and we decided to reduce his does by 20%. We both agreed that quality of life for Niko was the absolute most important thing. Aside from pre-treating and providing IV anti nausea (which we’d done in the past too) I started him on his cerenia pills (anti nausea) the day after chemo. I stayed home with him again that week and fretted about how he’d handle this does. All my worrying was not necessary this time. Aside from some mild diarrhea a few days later, he was fine. Maybe he slept more than normal, or maybe it just seemed that way because I watched his every breath.
Even though he had done well, due to the minor GI upset, we decided to leave well enough alone and not push it by administering the 5th dose. He was in remission and I felt good about my choice, even though there was no guarantee. When cancer is in remission, it’s like pushing a lurking alligator under the murky water. You have no idea how far below the surface it is, or when it will resurface, or even how or where. That uncertainty is a hard to live with day in and day out. I did my best to enjoy and appreciate each day. I know we were on borrowed time, and I wanted to enjoy the moments we had won in battle.
Stopping chemotherapy is a double edged sword. You are relieved to be done putting toxins in their body, but you are terrified of the cancer re-surfacing. You go from one roller coaster to another. All you want is solid ground, a straightforward answer, but there are none when it comes to cancer. There is no cure, no formula for what works for everyone. No way of knowing if the choices you are making are actually helping or hurting. I’ve seen some fight with everything they had, and still only lose ground before falling to their opponent.
Through LHD (lymphomaheartdogs) I learned quickly not to let statistics hold much weight. There is nothing statistical about cancer other than it will likely kill it’s victim at some point. But you cannot look at it from that angle. If you don’t have hope, what do you have? Who is to say that you won’t get the miracle of a cure – or at least a long remission? Statistically, dogs who were given 5 rounds of doxorubicin only, had a life expectancy of 5 months. My boy, who had only 4 rounds, made it 9 months (about FIVE dog years!!!) from dx to death. Eight of those months were in remission.
I could not bring myself to check his lymph nodes more than 1-2 times a week. I was too scared I’d find something. For 5.5 months after chemo our last chemo I found nothing. Most of his days were good ones. He was happy. He loved his walks and I told myself that as long as he so joyfully schniffed on our long walks, he was enjoying life. He loved to schniff – not sniff – but schniff. He would approach every light post or bush with his head stretched far in front of him allowing his nose to actively determine if this spot was worth stopping for. It usually was. I could hear him in my head say “hmmm…. This smells interesting… hmmm.. “ as he approached. Every night we walked over a mile. I will forever cherish those walks.
After he passed and we walked his usual route, I swear I could still see him, approaching with his head low and his nose schniffing away.
Regardless of the joy he still held in his heart, he seemed to age so much in the spring of 2009. He was over 16 now, and he was showing signs of deterioration mentally, neurologically, and physically. He became… distracted… disconnected from the world around him at times. I felt strongly that his quality of life was still good. If there was any pain, it was minimal. He was still mobile and enjoying long walks. He still showed interest in life and the things he enjoyed. Every single day I evaluated his well being, to make sure I was keeping him happy and comfortable. I am confident, he didn’t suffer.
July 1 was the day I felt the pea sized lymph nodes pop back up, and I knew we were entering into the last battle.
The story continue under “Saying Goodbye to Niko”
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Tags: canine lymphoma, canine lymphosarcoma, lymphoma in dogs, chemo for lymphoma for dogs, lymphoma in senior dog, fighting canine lymphoma, fighting canine cancer, canine cancer, cancer in dog