Posts Tagged 'canine lymphoma'

Happy Birthday, Gadget

It just wouldn’t be an After Gadget post if I didn’t start with an “On the one hand happy, on the other hand sad” sentiment, would it? Thus, in order not to disappoint. . . .

On one hand, Barnum and I having been rockin’ it. I’ve been at my pinnacle of functionality since Lyme hit in 2007, and I’ve squeezed out every bit of strength, energy, and mental focus to train and play as hard as I’m able. As a result, lots of skills are coming together. Most are Levels work — perfecting some of the skills from Level One (L1) that I was not satisfied with, as well as making great progress or even exceeding criteria for L2. But I’ve also been establishing a solid play retrieve, which I’ll want for exercising him in bad weather; continuing to hone his elimination on cue (got him to pee with one foot on a brick yesterday!); getting him more clicker savvy and “operant” (thinking for himself and offering behaviors instead of looking to me for direction) by playing the muffin tin game, the “101 things to do with a box” game, and free-shaping him to figure out on his own how to nudge doors open to get what he wants behind them.

In fact, he is now demanding to train, getting restless, bored, and adolescently tantrummy if we don’t train a few times a day. If we’re on a roll, and I keep the excitement and success level high, rotating behaviors, we can do sessions of 45 minutes or an hour, which is pretty darn good for a seven-month-old pup!

In short, we’re loving each other and thriving on our teamwork. It is truly a joy to work and play with him now, and even his forays into teenage prankishness — ruining the zipper on my extremely expensive and new organic barrier cloth, getting his sandy paws on my bed, slamming into the Plexiglas shield on our screen door so hard that he has severely cracked it (“Let me in NOW!”) — I pretty much laugh off. (The fact that he hasn’t had an accident in the house since June 20, which I blogged happened right after he passed his L1 test, has really been lovely, as well!)

I thought I was getting away with pushing myself too hard; then my body sent me a strongly worded memo. More of a “cease-and-desist order,” actually. I crashed in a serious way this past week. Gradually my voice went away, and my pain got worse, but I kept pushing until I was immobilized by pain and exhaustion, completely nonverbal, and largely unable to move my limbs. (With all the lovely nausea, brain fog, dizziness, etcetera, that goes with it.) Okay, body, got the message, thank you.

The silver lining is that I was able to not freak out (well, maybe just a smidge), and to remember that this was an opportunity for latent learning to kick in for my star pupil. And when I was able, it gave us a chance to practice training from me lying down and nonverbal, unable to get out of bed, which will likely be conditions Barnum will need to work under at times in the future.

On the other hand — you knew it was coming — Gadget has been on my mind even more than usual. In fact, I think one of the factors that has made training with Barnum so challenging and compelling is how different his process and personality are from Gadget’s. It really forces me to stay in my head and become a better trainer because I can’t rely on just doing what I did with Gadg. I have to flex my creative muscles.

But this time of year is heavy with memory for me.

Last year, Betsy and I started our vacation on the weekend of July 25 with a birthday party for Gadget. We don’t know for sure when his birthday was, but I thought it was probably in July, based on my having adopted him from rescue in July 2000, when he was just about one year old. Officially, we were celebrating his ninth birthday, but really we were celebrating him. Celebrating that we’d made it this far, that he was happy and healthy — in complete remission from the beast of lymphoma.

It was such an excellent party. I had never organized a dog birthday party before, and I was worried I would feel silly and awkward, overly sentimental. But it was wonderful. Gadget had the BEST time. I was so glad I did it.

Two of his dog friends came, and he played with them. It was a really hot day, so he was uncharacteristically playful in the kiddie pool my parents had brought just for him for the party. He kept trying to lie down in the pool to cool off. However, it was too small for him, making his butt bump against the side. So he’d just sort of hover, letting his chest get wet, but no further. Quintessentially Gadget! (After the party, seeing how much he liked the pool, we bought him a bigger one, which he almost never used — of course.)

Gadget streaming muzzle

Bobbing for Biscuits never felt so refreshing!

I broke the cancer-diet low-carbs rule and baked liver biscuits and a dog cake, and all the dogs loved them.

Gadget's birthday biscuits

The dogs were wild for these liver biscuits. Apparently, homemade really does taste better!

 

Gadgets cake

Who doesn't love peanut-butter-and-carrot cake with cottage-cheese icing?

We introduced our canine guests to some light agility . . .

Bug and Tessa learn agility

Even a low jump is high for Bug!

. . . and, of course, everyone wanted to play “bobbing for biscuits.”

Gadget, Tessa, Shay, me bobbing for biscuits

Tessa supervises, as Gadget bobs for biscuits.

The human guests were also totally into it and so kind. It was not weird at all; it was actually one of the most fun parties I’ve ever had! Our guests brought really sweet, thoughtful gifts; I had not expected people to bring gifts at all. Carol, my PCA who absolutely doted on Gadget, made him the “party hat” he’s wearing below. It looked so festive, and he didn’t even mind wearing it.

 

Birthday Boy

The party animal in full regalia.

Carol’s other gift was rather poignant: She gave him a terrific fleece vest for winter, which he never had the chance to wear. Like me, she didn’t entertain the possibility he wouldn’t be with us when the snow fell.

Everyone just loved him up. He really seemed to know it was his special day. Some of my favorite pictures of Gadget, in this post, are from that day — thanks to my Dad, who brought his camera, and my Mom, who kept saying, “Manny! Manny! Get a picture of this!”

With Gadget in complete remission, we were able to just celebrate him and feel GOOD. I thought it would keep going on like that. I tried not to think too far ahead, but I couldn’t help imagining his next party, a year later, for his tenth birthday. By October, that hope had slipped away, as mast cell cancer began taking over.

I miss him so much.

Sharon, Gadget, and cake

Such a good boy. He didn't even drool on the icing.

Still, for one glorious day in the sun, we were all happy, living in the moment, letting him eat cake.

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (birthday boy in spirit), and Barnum (puppy-in-training)

Back Back Back: A Year Ago Today

Back, back, back
In the back of your mind …

When you sit right down in the middle of yourself
You’re gonna wanna have a comfortable chair

-Ani DiFranco

Backdrop

I’ve been feeling depressed lately. I thought it was mostly health stuff. Ten days ago, my doctor told me that my complete blood counts (CBCs) were showing abnormalities, and that I had to stop all treatment for Lyme disease and coinfections — eight medications in all, including intravenous and intramuscular antibiotics — because medication toxicity was the likely culprit. If my blood work was normal for a month, we could discuss how and which treatments to resume. If it didn’t, I’d need to see a hematologist. She added that if my medications were not the problem, the cause might relate to “bone marrow,” such as “leukemia.” Terrific.

I had the leukemia flag waved at me a few years ago by a doctor trying to convince me to go to the ER, which I’d been refusing to do. His scare tactic worked. I went, and it turned out to be a lab error, as I’d expected. In this case, we have several weeks of abnormal tests to prove it’s not lab error, and I really like my current doctor, but I think casual cancer references should be illegal.

Background

A few days ago I received copies of the blood work my doctor’s concerned about. Some of the things that were wrong, such as abnormal lymphocyte counts, reminded me of reading Gadget’s CBCs. In fact, the reason I can decipher a CBC is that after Gadget started chemo, I studied his every week. I researched what each abbreviation stood for and what it could mean for his health. I bought veterinary manuals. I learned all I could about canine lymphoma and its treatments. He ate a homemade cancer diet and received Western and Chinese herbs, supplements, acupuncture, and chiropractic. The average life expectancy of a dog on Gadget’s chemotherapy protocol (Madison Wisconsin or CHOPP) is a little over a year. Gadget lived half that.

When Gadget was diagnosed, I also had a feeling of foreboding — about myself. Even as I was sure I could beat the odds for him, I had a bad feeling about what it would mean one day for me. Gadget and I were as close as I thought it was possible to be (until we got even closer, during the months he was sick), and we shared many of the same health problems: food sensitivities, bad reactions to drugs and chemicals, neurological issues, thyroid problems. I had raised him as healthfully as I thought possible. Like me, he was exposed to no pesticides, no cleaning chemicals, no preservatives or additives in his food. We lived in the country, and he drank clean water and breathed clean air. With his lifelong health problems, I’d always known that the longevity deck was stacked against him, due either to genetics or his early life. I suspect he came from a puppy mill. Still, I had never thought it would be cancer that would take him from me. My friends and family were similarly shocked: “Cancer? No, it can’t be cancer. Not Gadget. Not with the way you care for him….”

When I accepted that it was cancer, I thought, “I’m next.” A lot of people with MCS get cancer. I don’t know how often it’s directly related. In some cases, it’s clear that the chemical injury that caused the MCS also led to cancer. In others, it isn’t. Cancer is so common in the general population, it might just be coincidence for most. Regardless, with all my own illnesses and my history of chemical injury, and the fact that I got sicker instead of better despite all my efforts, when Gadget’s diagnosis was confirmed, it was hard for me to shake the feeling that it meant something for my health too. After all, we were two parts of the same body/soul, with so many of the same obstacles thrown in our paths. Some part of me settled into a silent conviction that it was my job to care for him until it happened to me, too.

Then, all the work of battling cancer distracted me from myself. Focusing all my energy on Gadget’s physical health and his happiness kept me too busy for the next six months to allow those thoughts again. When he died, they resurfaced, but I pushed them away. Until now.

Backslide

As I wait out this month for my test results, my symptoms charging back as treatment is withheld, I’ve become depressed. At first, I wasn’t sure why. There are a lot of potential reasons: Feeling sick feels bad, in itself. Not knowing why I’m doing worse — is it the tick-borne diseases letting loose, or is it something else? — is scary. If it is Lyme & co., will I be able to return to treatment, or will I spiral back down to where I was two years ago, back to a life of severe loss of function and intractable pain that felt marginally bearable largely because of Gadget? Could it be that mood/behavior changes, which can include feelings of hopelessness, had returned along with my other neurological symptoms? In this case, how could I know which of my feelings were “real” and which were the bugs eating my brain?

Backtalk

You might think that Barnum would cheer me up, but I’ve actually found raising him in the shadow of my grief to be confusing. Sometimes, I feel joyful, triumphant, and proud that despite my inexperience with puppies, his challenging mixture of personality traits (to be enumerated in future posts), and my significant — and currently, extraordinarily unpredictable — limitations, we are managing to make a go of it. Other times, I am so angry with myself and wracked with guilt by mistakes I’ve made or frustrated by his puppyhood — the concepts he doesn’t understand, the final steps of housebreaking, the exuberance that just isn’t fun when it involves bodily harm or the barking zoomies at 3:00 A.M. — that I question whether getting a puppy was the right decision. I argue with myself:

Me 1: “Gadget wasn’t like this.”

Me 2: “But Gadget wasn’t a puppy when you got him.”

Me 1: “But I never questioned that Gadget would be a great service dog. We struggled with a lot of things, but I had total faith that we’d be a team.”

Me 2: “But that was partly ignorance! You didn’t know all the things that could go wrong. Now you know so much more about the many reasons a dog can wash out, and how a dog has to want to work. Back then, you just took for granted that a dog that had more gusto than Jersey would love to work. Plus, you have more disabilities now, which makes it harder to raise and train Barnum and ups the ante of the number of tasks you’ll want him to learn.”

Me 1: “Ugh.”

Backcountry

I’ve just finished listening to a book called Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, which is a deeply moving book about an intensely close relationship between a rescued stray and the author, Ted Kerasote. Although Merle was not an assistance dog, he and Kerasote had a working partnership, as well as a deep and intimate love. Kerasote is a subsistence hunter in rural Wyoming, and Merle helped him locate elk and other game. All of Kerasote’s meat was what he procured from the wild, so they weren’t just sharing a game; they lived off this teamwork. The subject matter, alone, was bound to make me continuously reflect on my relationship with my dogs, especially Barnum and Gadget. Kerasote — who gave Merle freedoms impossible for most dog owners — challenges a lot of traditional, as well as current, thinking on dog care and training. Combined with my struggles and deep feelings of inadequacy as a puppy raiser, this focus kept me comparing myself and my canine relationships with that of Merle’s idyllic life with Kerasote.

Finally, of course, any book about the life of a dog must end with the death of that dog. Merle died of cancer, and the journey of illness and death that Kerasote traveled with Merle was very similar to what Gadget and I experienced. I finished the book yesterday. For the past two days, leading up to Merle’s death, I cried over and over. When I otherwise had no energy to move, I’d lay still except for the sobs jerking my body. I frequently envied Kerasote’s abilities and resources, physical and social, to care for Merle and provide a death and funeral for him that I was not able to provide for Gadget.

Backtrack

I thought these were all the reasons I’ve been thinking about Gadget more than usual while simultaneously feeling his presence in my memory murky and hard to grasp — as if Barnum and Merle somehow were obscuring who Gadget really was, what our relationship was, why I felt this pain under my breastbone that I could not name. Until today, I hadn’t known what to do with it but obsess darkly, eat chocolate, and cry.

Then, Carol, my PCA said, “Today is May 8, isn’t it?”

I rarely know the date; even the month can be a stretch. I checked my calendar and nodded, yes, the eighth.

Carol said, “It was exactly a year ago that I took Gadget to the hospital, wasn’t it? May eighth? ”

That stopped my heart. It was.

Back, Back, Back

I was very sick that day, like today, like yesterday. I couldn’t speak or get out of bed, and I was in a lot of pain. Gadget’s eye had looked pink the night before, and I had flip-flopped over monitoring it at home, taking him to the ER, or taking him to a regular vet. On the morning of Friday, May 8, 2009, I sent Gadget to VESH (Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital) with Carol. Part of what decided me was that VESH had an ophthalmologist on staff. Even though she was not scheduled that day, I was assured she could be consulted if necessary. I had a history with SD eye crises: Jersey had glaucoma, a common problem among Bouviers, and even though I had taken her to several vets from the time I adopted her (long before it was an emergency), it had been misdiagnosed repeatedly. By the time it was diagnosed, the affected eye was permanently blind and terribly painful and had to be removed.

Jersey in profile

Jersey's blind side -- the missing eye hid by her fall (bangs)

Afraid Gadget might relive this trauma, and frustrated by my helplessness at not being able to accompany him, I spoke at length to the receptionist at VESH via HCO relay, stressing the importance of getting Gadget’s intraocular pressure checked on both eyes and compared to each other. I told her that glaucoma was a breed problem in Bouviers, that a reading within the “normal” range should be suspect if it is still much higher than the other eye, and I asked the examining vet to call me by relay during or immediately after the exam. She assured me that they were very familiar with assessing and diagnosing glaucoma. This eased my mind slightly.

If only it had been glaucoma.

Backhand

I waited. It felt like forever until the phone rang. It was Dr. C. She was the doctor who had treated Jersey when she was dying of multiple-organ failure from unknown causes in 2006. Jersey was thirteen then, retired, and whatever killed her, either an extremely fast-moving infection or cancer, at least she’d lived a long life and didn’t suffer a protracted illness. Nonetheless, I hated hearing Dr. C’s voice. I hated her, irrationally because I associated her with Jersey’s death.

Within a few minutes, I despised her.

“Sharon, it’s good you brought Gadget in,” she said. She sounded cheery, and I thought her next words would be, “It is glaucoma, but we caught it in time.” Or that it was another eye problem that could be treated since we’d moved fast.

Instead, she followed up with, “Gadget has lymphoma.”

I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. There must be a mistake.

I started crying, but she couldn’t hear me because we were on relay. Dozens of questions leapt to mind, but I couldn’t interrupt her, because we were on relay.

She continued, “If your dog has to have cancer, lymphoma is the best cancer to have.” She explained that, depending on treatment, he could have another two to thirteen months to live.

This was the “good” news? He had the “best” cancer? I wanted to reach through the phone and hit her.

Backtrack

Over time, however, I learned the truth of what she said. Most canine cancers strike quickly and leave no options for treatment or cure. Lymphoma is one of few that usually responds well to chemotherapy. Gadget had five good months on chemotherapy. We reveled in swims and hikes at the pond, romps with other dogs, walks down new paths, even some new skills — just to add interest and a sense of accomplishment to his life.

Clear skies, clear water, Gadget returns to me.

When another cancer struck — mast cell tumors — Gadget’s decline was swift and heartbreaking. He died November 19, 2009.

I feel robbed; a year ago, I expected to have Gadget here with me today. If Gadget had represented the mean, one year post-diagnosis we’d have one more month with him in remission. That was the average for the MW protocol at VESH: thirteen months. But, for there to be an average, half the dogs must live longer, and half the dogs must live shorter. Of course, Gadget could not sit in the middle of the bell curve, because Gadget was never average.

My sweet boy, I miss you. I want you back.

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget (with Barnum, puppy-in-training)

P.S. Right before I was about to publish this post I got a note from Rochelle Lesser of The Land of PureGold Foundation . This is a wonderful organization. They educate about so many crucial issues — working dogs, humane training, canine cancer, nontoxic pet care, and more. They also gave Gadget a grant to cover some of his cancer treatment, for which I was very grateful.

Currently, they are running a contest to raise awareness about the importance of nontoxic, real food for dogs in preventing cancer and other health problems, and I was astonished to learn that so few have entered! I am only one of two so far! Rochelle even did a touching quickpress about Gadget and the last birthday cake I made for him.

The first ten people who enter the Bone Appetit Recipe Contest receive a bag of free, nutritious dog treats! (And the grand prize is phenomenal.) They gave me strength in championing Gadget’s fight to survive. Please lend your support to this very important (and fun!) contest.


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