by Donna McCormack
Remember the movie “Rainman?” We’ve fondly and lovingly come to call Theo our Raindog. There is no disrespect intended for the disease of autism but Theo acts much the same way. He has a hard time deviating from his routines, gets a little neurotic and will have a vocal fit if he’s really troubled. This will all come to mean more a little later in the story. And if you ever face this disease, you will also discover the therapeutic value of whatever humor one can find to get you through.
The symptoms of this dreaded disease called Osteosarcoma began to manifest themselves in July of 2001. It all began when Theo bolted from his bed during a thunderstorm. At first we attributed the limp to a pulled muscle from his Rainman frenzy. We gave him Bufferin for several days and he got better. The limp returned a couple of weeks later with no relief from the Bufferin. Our vet initially suspected a torn cruciate ligament. In the back of my mind I wondered about Osteosarcoma, and I told my husband to pray that Theo didn’t have bone cancer when I dropped him off for an x-ray. The x-ray did in fact reveal that his knee joint had the moth-eaten appearance that is usually an indicator of cancer. However, a bone biopsy is needed to confirm the type and stage of cancer.
Our big sweet boy was already in pain. He had turned from a happy, playful guy to a very mopey one. In as much as one can know how an animal feels, our vet advised us that he would feel like he had a broken leg after his bone biopsy. We were told that if we could get through his pain after this procedure, we could probably handle the pain associated with the amputation that would be recommended if this diagnosis was confirmed. The “osteo” diagnosis was confirmed and we were both heartsick and scared. Our guy was only 6 ½ and this seemed so unfair. He was two when we adopted him and 4 ½ years didn’t seem nearly long enough with this sweet, somewhat insecure guy — our first grey. Initially we were vehemently opposed to the idea of amputation because Theo has always been such a baby and partly because we probably equated the dog’s dignity with the image of our own dignity.
Theo had a week’s interim between his x-ray and bone biopsy. During this time I started to read anything that was associated with the prognosis and/or treatment of Osteosarcoma and cancers in dogs. There is all kinds of information available on the internet but I would caution against reading any of the personal web sites that have been set up with names such as “Brandy’s story”, etc. They are set up by individuals and offer concoctions and theories about treatment and supplements that are not necessarily based in scientific fact. They will tear at your heartstrings but do not necessarily offer legitimate information. The Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, to name a few, have some helpful and consistent information about Osteosarcoma and its progression, treatment options and prognosis associated with them.
Although I believe in Western medicine, I also believe that there is distinct benefit in treating the body holistically by adding supplements and known antioxidants to boost the immune system. I gained a lot of insight and information from The Nature of Animal Healing by Martin Goldstein, one of the well-known holistic veterinarians of our generation. Some of the other web sites also offer consensus as to the most effective supplements to boost the immune system of cancer patients. As we were initially opposed to amputation, we first considered this as our total approach to Theo’s Osteosarcoma. We decided that the downside to treating the cancer in a purely holistic manner is that the animal would need to ingest multitudes of pills per day in order for it to have any long-lasting or valid effect.
It was also rapidly becoming apparent that the pain Theo was suffering we could not control with a purely holistic approach. We had reached the point where he would cry all through the night and we couldn’t let him live in that pain. We also couldn’t just give up on him and resort to euthanasia. In all other aspects he was still vital and alive. His appetite was still completely healthy; he still wanted to be with us and did not want to be isolated; he still got all excited about going for a ride. We had to re-examine the opinions we had formulated. The next conclusion we drew was that the leg had to be amputated. This was the source of Theo’s pain and we would also live in constant fear of the leg breaking as the cancer progressed. We then considered amputation in conjunction with diet and holistic supplements. At first we did not embrace the idea of chemotherapy because of the horrible side effects it is known to have on humans. We had a hard time with the thought of putting our dog through this when most studies showed that the median survival rate was 50% at a year’s time.
I cannot begin to adequately stress the importance of having a veterinarian whom you trust and who shares and respects your general outlook because one can drive oneself crazy trying to make a decision with all the information that is available. We decided to consult with a veterinarian who has been involved with greyhounds for a long time and knows a great deal about them. She explained that with amputation alone Theo would probably survive no longer than 4 months. She felt very strongly that this was a huge ordeal to put our beloved pet through without giving him any chance at greater longevity. She also explained that animals generally go through chemotherapy much more easily than people and acquainted us with the different types of chemo, their possible side effects and costs (in reality it is a factor in most households). We also gained some assurance that the dog would adjust to his amputation very quickly without depression and the self-consciousness that a person would have – it would be a matter of survival and not dignity.
We knew that we wanted to give our boy a chance and we knew that we needed to act quickly so we decided that amputation with chemotherapy was fairest to him and his best chance. Theo’s surgery was scheduled the first week in September. Although the surgery went fine, I cannot say that the process was without complication and setbacks. Even though he was drugged to the max, Theo tried to stand up shortly after his surgery which caused the sutures to pull and the wound to bleed. He had to be taken back into surgery. Because our vet did not want to leave him alone overnight, we had to transport him to an emergency facility where he could be monitored and kept quiet overnight. Remarkably enough, he walked out of the hospital on his own the next morning and gladly jumped back into our car. He then had to return to his own vet for his first dose of chemo and he went home with us that evening.
Just as it looked like Theo was regaining his appetite and strength after a couple of days home, he developed a raging diarrhea. It wasn’t bad enough that he was trying to recover from major surgery, our fanatically clean grey was now constantly having to go out. He was mortified by the thought of soiling his home. This also progressed into profuse bleeding from the rectum, even when he was just standing in place. As Theo’s vet was away at a conference, we were taking him to yet another emergency hospital on a Sunday afternoon three days post-op.
It was supposed to be a very uncommon reaction to the Doxyrubicin chemo agent, but the immediate fear was that our grey was having a reaction to the chemo. He spent another night in the hospital. He was placed on Flagyl for the intestinal tract and Baytril for his wound and returned home again the next day but was still refusing food.
At this point I was completely distraught and really began to hate myself for what I had done to this wonderful, kind creature. I cannot say enough about Julia Carter’s (our vet) commitment to both Theo’s care and our family’s coping mechanisms. While she was still away at a conference, she called several evenings to check on her patient. She consulted with doctors at Tufts University on a few occasions on Theo’s behalf. She explained the reaction and hemorrhagic colitis that Theo developed after his first round of chemo. We were offered a preventive option of placing him on Flagyl prior to his next treatments, which she urged us to continue and stressed that although this was an extremely difficult time, he would get through it and still have a chance at some happy, prolonged time. I guess the thing that struck me most was her belief that we would all have failed Theo if WE couldn’t endure and put him down now. After all that I didn’t want to fail our guy. This is another reason it is so important to find a vet whose judgement you trust.
I’m delighted to say that things began to turn around quickly for Theo after a few days of Flagyl. His appetite returned and he began to gain weight and muscle-mass. With our veterinarian’s encouragement we placed Theo on a high-protein diet which contains the antioxidant arginine (Hill’s Prescription ND). We also supplement his diet with selenium, flaxseed oil and MSM for the benefit of his joints. Before each of his subsequent chemotherapies he was treated with Flagyl and given an injection of Benadryl immediately following them to prevent allergic reaction. He went through his remaining treatments easily and was fortunate enough to be able to absorb a full-strength dose of chemo for each session, which is more effective long-term. His white cell and platelet counts did not drop significantly to the point that the dose had to be reduced.
I know that my husband and I both underestimated Theo’s resilience and fortitude. He always remained good-natured with numerous vet techs and willing to jump in the car through numerous trips to the vet, no matter how sick he was. We weren’t sure he had it in him but we are both delighted that it is going on 7 months from his surgery and he’s still a happy, energetic, even more vocal Raindog. He roos whenever he has ambivalence about anything these days. He roos for his trained Dad to carry him upstairs at night. After several nights’ sleep on the couch next to Theo shortly after his surgery, his Dad decided to carry him upstairs to our bedroom until he gained strength. This is still a nightly ritual. However, his Dad arrives home after work every day to find the Raindog upstairs. He’s an excellent stair-climber – when no one is watching.
I don’t know what length of time God has in store for Theo. I do know that we have no regrets about our decision to treat him and allow him the chance to become himself again and live happily without constant pain.
WAG TALES 2003