three weeks ago our 11 year old terrier, Sparky, had a full health exam, check-
up and blood work. Shockingly, our pooch—who, in the past, had unrelentingly
devoured food and non-edibles like face cream and Kleenex—had not eaten his dinner or breakfast. While he had an upset
stomach and seemed lethargic, the vet said he looked okay. One of Sparky’s lymph nodes was slightly
swollen; he was a little anemic, but was normal otherwise. The vet gave our beloved dog anti-nausea
medication and suggested an MRI if he exhibited symptoms such as vomiting,
diarrhea or lack of appetite. Over the next week, Sparky began eating again, but
certainly not with his usual gusto. He
lost his desire to walk, and his breathing was labored.
I brought Sparky back to Manhattan Veterinary Group, where he’d been a
“patient” since he was a puppy. Max and Sparky had grown up together, and the
dog had always been his baby, his best friend and an integral part of his
childhood. After years of begging us
for a dog, we’d finally relented when Max was 11, and old enough take on most
of the responsibility for his pet’s care.
time Sparky was examined by a different vet, and the examination seemed to last
“I’m sorry to tell you that I think
your dog has lymphoma.” She spoke softly and sounded genuinely sad, after
palpating his panting body and even removing a chunk of red fur. “All of his lymph nodes are swollen, and he
has fluid in his lungs.”
My son had tears in his eyes, and I
felt like an anvil had fallen on my heart. Sparky was the same age Max had been
when they first met. Now –suddenly it
seemed—Max was a young man and Sparky an ailing grandfather. “But you saw him 3
weeks ago,” I protested. “How could his condition change so much so quickly?”
“It’s very common for animals to
exhibit no symptoms until they are very sick,” the vet said in a kind but
matter of fact tone. “Unfortunately, animals can’t tell us when they don’t feel
well. They just do their best to carry on with their normal routines until they
can’t anymore. That’s when pet owners notice something’s wrong, but by that
time the disease is often very advanced.”
I wanted to protest that lymphoma
was not on our breeder’s list of diseases which are common to Norwich Terriers
–an extremely hardy and stoic breed—but I was in too much shock.
Although lymphoma is the most
common type of cancer in dogs and cats, 11 years ago the breeder had assured us
there was no cancer in Sparky’s bloodline.
When we first brought home our adorable feisty pup, we were told that he
would probably live to be 15 or 16, the normal lifespan for a Norwich terrier. At 11 years old, Sparky was beyond middle-age,
but certainly not elderly. Those who
follow my blog will remember that only three months ago, Sparky underwent
surgery on his leg. At that time, we had believed he was in good health, and we
wanted him to enjoy the next 4 or 5 years without limping or the pain of arthritis. Sparky had bounced back from the surgery
nicely, and now, just when we were cheering his recovery, he was— suddenly,
“Mom, HOW could this happen?” Max demanded,
wiping his nose. “It’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not fair.” Briefly I thought of all the “unfair”
situations in our family, including Sarah’s autism, Max being born with a hole
in his heart and ADHD. None of it was remotely fair. With a sigh I turned toward the vet. “How
sure are you about this diagnosis?” I asked.
“More than 50%, I’m afraid. We’ll know more after the x rays.”
room was silent for a moment. “Can you at least make him more comfortable and
help his breathing?” I asked at last.
The vet seemed relieved to be able to offer us some small comfort. “We can drain fluid from his lungs after the
chest x rays and other tests.”
The “other tests” included full
blood work, urinalysis, and fine needle aspiration of the lymph nodes. The vet asked us to leave Sparky for two
hours and return for the results.
When we got back, the vet was grim-faced.
In the examining room, she gave Max and
me a guided tour of Sparky’s chest x rays.
“These black, oxygenated areas around his lungs should be twice the
size. The cloudy sections around his
heart and ribcage are fluid that’s most likely caused by the inflammation from
a mass. His breathing capacity was only
50% when you brought him in.” She paused, looking me in the eye. “I’m so sorry.”
Max began to weep, and I leaned
over to stroke his head. I was sitting in the only available chair in the exam
room and my son was on the linoleum floor next to me. “Are you absolutely sure it’s lymphoma?” I
was still hoping I‘d somehow gotten trapped in a bad movie or someone else’s
life. Maybe if I just asked the right question, I’d
get a better answer. But no, try as I
might to avoid the bad news, it was slowly sinking into my brain that whatever
was going on in Sparky’s cute furry body was killing him. It didn’t matter what
name we gave it.
“I’m 90% sure it’s lymphoma. I’ll send out the lab work just to confirm. Your next
step is taking Sparky to a veterinary oncologist. The oncologist will talk to
you about staging and treatment options.”
Lymphoma in dogs and cats is always
fatal. But further research revealed that
80 to 90% of dogs treated with chemo therapy go into remission for about a
year, (plus or minus a couple of months.)
We were also advised that dogs tolerate chemo very well, and don’t
suffer the side effects of hair loss and nausea seen in humans.
After the test results confirmed
100% that our dog had lymphoma, Max and I took him to see a perky, upbeat
oncologist at Blue Pearl Hospital on West 55th Street. It had been only 2 days since the vet had
examined Sparky and drained his lungs, but our poor dog was already struggling
to breathe again. Max carried Sparky like a baby, nestled inside his down coat,
as the dog was unable to walk.
has Stage 5 lymphoma,” The oncologist told us. ”Because it’s in his chest, and
he’s feeling sick, it’s sub stage B.”
Max leaned forward in his chair. “Can
you help him?”
“With chemotherapy, Sparky has a
good chance of going into remission and having a good quality of life,” Dr.
Britton replied. The oncologist somehow managed to sound upbeat, despite the
worst possible stage and diagnosis. There was
no stage 5 for humans; stage 4 was the final frontier. Why was Dr. Britton so cheerful and
optimistic? According to Dr. Britton, dogs responded
completely or not at all, regardless of their cancer stage. In Sparky’s favor, his blood had normal
calcium levels, and this suggested that the disease had not yet reached his
discussed a variety of treatment options.
The “first line” drugs used for chemo would cost $12,000 and be
administered once a week for six months.
For half that amount (and half the success rate) there were second line drugs. Max started getting hopeful, while I
was skeptical and horrified. Not only
was the treatment wildly expensive, but also the vet hadn’t convinced me that
dogs don’t feel sick from chemo. If a
dog can’t tell you he’s sick until he’s dying, how could the vet know what sort
of pain the dog feels when the IV goes in?
only a week to decide because Sparky’s condition will deteriorate rapidly if we
do not take action. Dr. Britton offered
to give Sparky steroids and a one-time injection of chemo ($800) immediately to
see how well Sparky responds. Max and I
accepted that offer, and Sparky received a dose of chemo that day. Currently, our
family is painfully divided about treatment. Max wants to save Sparky at almost
any cost and is willing to spend his graduation money to pay for treatment.
I think chemo for the dog is crazy,
costly and possibly cruel. But, to be “fair,” I decided to research further and
gather all the information I could. I called Sparky’s breeder; I solicited the
opinion of dog owners in similar situations. I even posted an open question on
Facebook about chemo for dogs, and, of course, I Googled canine lymphoma. I
also spoke extensively with our regular vet, who disagreed with the oncologist
about treatment, and thought Sparky’s prognosis was poor. Meanwhile, Sparky got some of his “spark”
back after the first treatment, and even knocked over Max’s garbage can to
forage for food. For once I was thrilled at his messy antics, thinking they
were a positive sign. But then a friend
whose wife died of cancer told me that patients often experience the greatest
relief from the first shot of chemo, and then less as time goes on. Another friend insisted that the initial
steroid treatment was providing the real relief, and once the chemo was added,
Sparky would be weaker.
do and who to believe? It’s still an open question. Henry has yet to cross examine both the regular
vet and the oncologist, and offer his perspective on treatment options. Although I’m opposed to spending thousands to
buy the possibility of one more year,
I empathize with my son’s desperation to give Sparky more time. The pooch was
Max’s first baby, and as a parent I know I’d do anything to save my child. Now Max is experiencing himself as a parent
(instead of a child), who is sick with worry, wanting his baby to get well.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure. No matter what we do, we have started to say
Labels: ADHD, autism, cancer, canine lymphoma, chemotherapy, dogs, drug side effects, heart defects, lymph nodes, Norwich Terriers, oncologists, remission, steroids, veterinarians