“What would you be willing to do for 2 more years with Blizzard?”
I never thought I’d have to answer that question until my dog was diagnosed with cancer.
“What would you be willing to do for 2 more years with Blizzard?”
It all started with a simple trip to the vet. My dog Blizzard had “the scoots.” I kept catching him rubbing his bum on the rugs in our apartment, the grass outside, and even the gravel path around the lake. I took him to the vet, expecting a quick visit, and left full of dread. His vet had discovered a small mass in Blizzard’s anal gland and suspected it might be cancerous. He was going to need surgery.
Blizzard was almost 12 years old. A happy, smiley Samoyed mix, he was often mistaken for a much younger dog, thanks to his friendly disposition and lots of glucosamine supplements to keep his joints springy. The prospect of surgery to remove the tumor was nerve-wracking. Thankfully, Bliz made it through with flying colors, though he was left with a shaved backside and a few days in the Cone of Shame.
Once removed, the tumor was sent off for analysis. Unfortunately, the testing confirmed my fears: it was anal gland adenocarcinoma, an aggressive cancer that often moves from the gland into the lymph system, and can spread rapidly from there. My sweet dog had cancer.
My sweet dog had cancer.
Consulting a specialist
It was time to call in the big guns. That meant an appointment to see a veterinary oncologist. Prior to seeing his new doctor, Blizzard had an ultrasound to assess how far along the cancer might be. Bliz now had a shaved belly to go along with his shaved butt—oh, the indignity of it all. The ultrasound brought us some good news, however. There were no signs of tumors in the lymph nodes or organs. We’d caught the cancer early! I never thought I’d say this, but thank god for the scoots.
I had to decide on a treatment plan, and that meant some very emotional conversations with his oncologist.
With the ultrasound completed, I had to decide on a treatment plan, and that meant some very emotional conversations with his oncologist. Due to the inconvenient location of the tumor, it’s difficult for a surgeon to remove enough tissue around the area to ensure all cancer cells are gone.
With surgery alone, the average survival is eight months. When combined with other treatment methods like radiation or chemotherapy, the survival times are much longer, typically around 2-2.5 years. I’d thought I was ready to receive news like that, but it was a punch in the gut to hear that my dog might have as little as eight months left.
It was a punch in the gut to hear that my dog might have as little as eight months left.
His doctor recommended a course of five weeks of radiation treatments, administered three times a week. This would be the best chance to “mop up” the remaining cancer cells, extending Bliz’s life. Side effects were unlikely.
The main drawbacks? Radiation therapy for dogs is fairly time-intensive. It’s also a very expensive treatment—we’re talking multiple thousands of dollars. I’d long gotten over the sticker shock that can come with having an elderly dog, but this was a whole new level.
Blizzard’s advanced age also complicated matters. I wondered, should I put a 12 year-old dog through radiation treatment?
Bliz had been with me for almost 9 years, which I knew was a lot more than many people get with their dogs. One moment, I’d think I should accept saying goodbye, and try to feel some gratitude for the time we’d had together. The next moment, I’d fill up with a stubborn drive to fight back, no matter what it took. It was exhausting and heartbreaking. There’s just no way to prepare yourself to make that kind of decision.
Blizzard’s doctor was very patient with me, and helped me to weigh the options carefully. At one point, she gently suggested, “Another way to consider this is to ask yourself, what would you be willing to do for 2 more years with Blizzard?”
The answer? There was very little I wouldn’t do to help him, and I certainly couldn’t put a price tag on it. That brought the perspective I needed. In fact, it was a gift to be able to do something at all to extend his life. I knew I would regret not taking action. I was ready for us to go forward with radiation.
There wasn’t a radiation facility dedicated for animal use in our area. We went to a nearby hospital instead, where Bliz’s doctor used the radiation clinic after the human patients had left for the day. As such, the process was a bit odd. There wasn’t a good space for the canine patients to wait, so we’d sit in the car until one of the vet techs came to bring us inside. This gave everything a clandestine feeling, like we were sneaking in to get some radiation treatment on the sly.
We went to a nearby hospital to use the radiation clinic after the human patients had left for the day. It felt like we were sneaking in to get some radiation treatment on the sly.
Once inside, Blizzard would get very excited to see his new best friends, the veterinary assistants and technicians, running up to each of them and doing a happy little dance. His doctor tried to be his buddy too, but as soon as she appeared, his tail would droop. He quickly learned that her arrival meant it was time for a ride on the gurney, some unpleasant needle pokes, and a very sudden nap.
For each treatment, they administered a fast-acting sedative to keep Bliz absolutely still while the radiation was applied. While they worked on him, I stayed in the waiting room. There, I got to know some of my kindred cancer pet parents. Most days, I chatted with two women who drove four hours, each way, for treatments for their chihuahua. They’d come up Monday, stay overnight, and drive home Tuesday morning, only to repeat the process on Wednesday and again on Friday. It was worth it, they said, for “the absolute best care possible” for their pup. It helped me to see that I wasn’t alone, and that I wasn’t quite as crazy as I felt.
When the sedative began to wear off, I would go cuddle Bliz as he slowly woke up. The first few times, it was a pretty sad scene. It was tough to see him so disoriented and weak, struggling to stand. He was so dizzy, his favorite vet tech accompanied us on the wobbly walk to the car and helped to lift him in.
I was worried about the impact on his overall health, since he had to fast before every treatment, and was too loopy afterwards to eat much. There were more than a few times that I questioned if this would all be worth it.
There were more than a few times that I questioned if this would all be worth it.
Much to my relief, by the last couple treatments, he was coming out of sedation more smoothly. I was elated when we finished the final treatment, but I think Bliz missed getting to see his pals so frequently. He never lost his cheerful, cooperative demeanor, handled radiation like a champ, and had very few negative effects. The radiation site became red and sore in the final week, so I had to apply a soothing cream. Yep, add “apply butt cream” to the list of gross things I’ve had to do as a pet parent over the years.
Two more years
After completing treatment, life went on almost as if nothing had happened. Bliz had periodic ultrasounds to check for cancer. At his regular exams, his vet paid particular attention to his backside, often gleefully informing me, “Everything’s good. That’s a fine-looking butt!”
Two years and seven months after his initial cancer diagnosis, we said goodbye to Blizzard. He was 14 years old and had been in declining health due to age-related conditions. I took a small measure of comfort knowing that I’d gotten extra time with him. I wouldn’t have had those two years if we hadn’t caught the cancer in time, or if I’d made a difference choice.
Because of my decision, Bliz lived to enjoy his golden years—and I was able to say goodbye to my friend without regrets.