Dealing with Canine Cancer

For most people their recollections of the year 2016 were defined by the American Presidential election, the British exit from the European Union, gun violence, terrorism, and a smattering of other issues. My year was defined by canine cancer.

On an unremarkable night in May of 2016 I came home from my second job and went to take my dogs Azzurri and Lilly outside. When I reached down to put Azzurri’s leash on, I noticed a bump on his front right leg. At first I just assumed he’d been his crazy little self and run into something or that perhaps his leg was swollen from running next to me while longboarding, but the bump persisted and did not go away.

Not knowing the area I lived in very well, I got a recommendation for a local veterinarian. The vet saw him and when she first looked at it she poked and prodded at his leg and exclaimed something to the tune of “Hmm, that’s interesting, it seems gelatinous.” Not quite the words I was hoping or expecting to hear. She took a cell sample from the area and said they would call within 2-3 days with the results. He was given some antihistamines and we left to wait for the news.

When 3 days had passed without a peep from the vet I started to get antsy and gave them a call. The results weren’t in yet. Eventually the vet called me back and said that it was a histamine related issue and that if the problem persisted I would need to bring him back in for a follow-up.

The issue persisted over a couple of weeks.

When he saw the vet again they told me that it was a mast cell tumor. They asked if I had received the letter in the mail notifying me of the news or if the veterinarian who had handled his visit before had told me of the news. I had not received anything in the mail and the vet had only told me to monitor it to see if it got worse. The vet didn’t explain that the issue was cancer before and this news came weeks after his results had come in. Had I known it was cancer, I would have been much more vigilant and urgent about his treatment. Thank you Doctor.

Azzurri had a mast cell tumor and these tumors come in three grades, with grade three being the worst. Azzurri’s tumor was grade two. While the tumor did not necessarily have a high risk to spread throughout the body, his treatment recommendation was surgery to remove the mass.

The vet recommended the Animal Specialty Group in Los Angeles for the surgery due to the location of the tumor and their expertise. The vet also mentioned they could do it in-house for cheaper, but they said it is possible he may need another surgery and after dealing with their incompetence already I didn’t want to risk going with them again.

I set up an appointment with ASG immediately and took Azzurri to see the surgeon. They recommended surgery and we proceeded with his treatment. Everything went perfect surgery-wise and Azzurri didn’t lose a single bit of his spirit. Even with stitches, a cone, a cast, and not being able to jump, go running, or basically have fun, he remained the same awesome little dog. The only downside was that not all of the mass was removed as some of the tumor had grown between his tendons where the surgeon couldn’t remove it.

At his one week follow-up after surgery Azzurri had his cast removed and saw the oncologist at ASG. She recommended radiation treatment to destroy the remaining mass in his leg. Price tag: around $7,000 to $10,000. One bit of silver lining was at least that the radiation could be delayed for a little while to take time to get the funds for the procedure.

Months went by and Azzurri’s leg seemed fine, but in late October his leg looked like it was starting to grow and shrink in the same area his tumor was removed. I called a different veterinarian and got referred to a new oncologist to get a second opinion on the radiation treatment so we could compare the prices and proceed with the next step. The veterinarian referred me to the Veterinary Cancer Group of Los Angeles.

From the moment we saw the oncologist at the Veterinary Cancer Group there was no doubt in my mind I wanted them to handle his treatment. At every step of the way they showed that they truly cared about my dog. The staff even asked if they could have Azzurri for an extra 15 minutes just to play in the back with him. When it came to billing I’m pretty sure they even threw in a discount as well. At the end of the day though, they confirmed that the best path would be radiation treatment and that the cost was going to be around $7,000 to $10,000.

Raising money was the hard part. I set up a GoFundMe account and it was successful to a degree, but the constant stress and worry about where I would be able to come up with the funding for his treatment felt like I was carrying the globe on Atlas’ back. I hate asking people for money, and knew I wouldn’t be able to raise the money on my own through the GoFundMe account, but I had to do everything I could. Thankfully Azzurri’s grandparents love him and decided they would pay for his treatment. I still tried raising money because I wanted to help out my parents as much as I could, but I knew I would never be able to raise the money for his treatment alone.

On December 1st we went to the Veterinary Cancer Group at their Woodland Hills location. He had a check-up and blood tests to see whether the cancer had spread before starting radiation. Everything came back clear with no abnormalities and we scheduled his treatments to start the next week. His treatments would be every weekday for 18 days from the 5th of December until the 28th of December. The treatments would include putting him to sleep with anesthesia every day and directing a very strong X-ray at the location of the tumor.

Everything up to this point had been pretty stressful, but the stress elevated to a whole new level when radiation treatment started. Luckily for the pups they enjoy car rides and don’t have any idea what a stupid driver or dealing with traffic is, but dealing with Los Angeles drivers and the I-405 freeway every single day is almost hell. Compound that with trying to buy Christmas gifts, preparing my apartment for my family to visit for Christmas, and trying to handle my work responsibilities, my energy was sapped for nearly all of December.

Our schedule was completely out of whack. Azzurri was supposed to fast every day for at least 8 hours before treatment. He threw up while under anesthesia during his first couple weeks and apparently that’s a really bad thing so after a week and a half he got put on a 12 hour fast. With the time added to get to and from treatment it was more like 15 hours. We also normally take a nap or two after work but that wasn’t possible because after his treatment I had to catch up on work.

What really stood out was how Azzurri remained his same happy self throughout the whole ordeal. He showed no side-effects during the treatment and would actually whine when we would arrive for his radiation therapy because he couldn’t wait to see the people inside. His spirit made it a lot easier to deal with the stress brought on by the situation.

Christmas came and Azzurri’s grandparents and auntie got to see him before he finished his treatment and spend the holidays with us. Sadly, he had to wear the cone for their trip, but he still got to enjoy their company.

On Thursday, December 28th Azzurri graduated from radiation treatment.

As much as this experience has weighed on me, I can’t even imagine how Azzurri has felt. While his tumor was present a vet described the sensation as irritating and said it would feel like little crystals inside his skin. After his surgery he wasn’t able to jump and had to wear a cone and a cast, so I moved all of the furniture so he had nothing to jump on and would sleep on the floor with him and Lilly at night. They did have a pretty sweet couch fort though

It took him a while to get used to the cone, but eventually the cast came off and then a few weeks later the cone. When his radiation treatment began however, he started wearing a cone again and it didn’t come off for an extended period of time other than his radiation treatment for five weeks.

I’m not a superstitious person, but when your baby develops a disease like cancer you start to question if it’s because of something you did. Did I use the wrong carpet cleaner? Was there a chemical I left in the house he was exposed to? Was it something I was feeding him that caused it? Was it because Azzurri was sad I adopted a new dog? The endless questions (often ridiculous) with unknowable answers brought on by the onset of cancer in a loved one are daunting.

Every bump and anomaly becomes an anxiety attack, and when you do notice something that looks a bit abnormal you wonder if you hadn’t been paying enough attention to your baby enough and could have noticed it sooner.

I imagine some of the stresses and issues that have come along with Azzurri’s cancer are the same for those who have family members or children who develop cancer. I also imagine that it is much harder to handle this when it’s a child because it would be impossible to keep a child in the dark about how serious the disease is. Even if you didn’t explain it to them, they would know something is not right. With a dog I feel as if it is a lot easier to hide the seriousness of cancer. He may have sensed my body language was different as I was stressed out or that we were going to weird places with people in lab coats more, but taking a kid to the doctor and have them hear the doctor say they have cancer seems like a much more arduous task.

Azzurri can’t understand English besides his commands, but kids are not so simple. Kids ask questions, they wonder, they tell you how they feel. I have no idea how my little boy Azzurri has felt through this ordeal and I think in many ways him not knowing what was happening helped ease his mind throughout the diagnosis and treatment.

Thursday, January 12th marked two weeks since his treatment finished and he’s shown no real side effects other than dry skin at the radiation site. We are back to going for longboard rides and he can run worry-free for the first time in almost eight months.

It feels good to be able to breathe deep and know that this ordeal is over, but I’m always going to have one thought on my mind:

Will his cancer come back?

Who knows, but Azzurri is happy, healthy, tumor-free and can run again, and that’s all that matters right now.