One man's commentary on his dog's cancer


Holly's Story

I guess the best way to tell this story is to give some general background, then give the events as they happened.

Holly was a "pet" Siberian Husky, which is to say she wasn't a "show quality" dog.  I never wanted to show my dogs in competition; I just wanted to have a fun companion animal.  Holly was great.  When we told the breeder we wanted another dog (Holly was the fourth Husky I got from this kennel), she called back and told us "I have a little girl here with tons of personality".  This was the understatement of the decade.  Holly came out of her shipping crate with a serious attitude, grumbling whenever she wasn't satisfied with what was going on.  You have to understand that when I get irritated at people saying "it's only a dog", I'm doing so because of dogs like Holly.  She honestly seemed almost human sometimes, because she would react with frustration, irritation or total joy, depending on the situation.

I often referred to Holly as the "single most destructive force on Earth" because she was an incredible hunter, able to catch just about anything in the yard from squirrels to raccoons to -- urk -- skunks.  The only creature to escape the back yard alive was a possum, which played dead at the appropriate moment.  Holly proved to be pretty durable for the most part, only having one serious problem, when she snapped off one of her fangs chasing a rabbit.  The rabbit squeezed out of the yard through a gate and Holly's muzzle hit a fence post.  A two-hour trip to the specialty dentist was required to get a root canal job for her.

The only other problem she had was a semi-chronic soft stool problem.  Early on, this was diagnosed as a parasite problem from eating so many rabbits, and we dealt with these issues as they came up.

Early in 2003, Holly had a bout of soft stools and obvious discomfort, so I got a stool sample and took her to the vet to see if she needed something to take care of the parasites.  Well, there weren't any parasites this time.  We adjusted her diet a bit and the problem seemed to clear up.

Week 1

A couple of months later, on Friday, June 27, Holly wouldn't eat her lunch at 2PM, her normal lunch time.  This was unheard of, because Holly normally devastated her food in under 30 seconds, then sat next to Aurora, our other Husky, and waited for her to spill some food that Holly could steal.  I was worried right off the bat, because this simply wasn't normal.  It was a warm day, though, so later I checked her temperature, just to see if something was wrong there.  Her temperature was up a bit; I figured I'd keep an eye on it.  By then it was late in the afternoon and our local vet was closed anyway. I kept trying to give her treats and things to see if I could spur her appetite; she would drink water but not eat.  There wasn't any vomiting.  In early evening, she ate the treats that I had left next to her.  I re-checked her temperature and it was back to normal.  She ate a lot that evening, and I chalked the incident up to the warm day.

Saturday, June 28: Holly seemed totally normal, eating her food as usual.  My wife mentioned later in the day that Holly had made a sound when she jumped off our bed, where she sat waiting for my wife to get dressed.  Kind of an "oof" sound, indicating some sort of discomfort.  I checked out Holly's legs and feet, thinking that maybe she had twisted or strained something.  Everything seemed OK the rest of the day.

Sunday, June 29:  Holly didn't eat breakfast, and when I took her temperature, it was up again.  I made our normal Sunday breakfast of pancakes, with mini pancakes as the standard reward for Aurora, who gets an injection once a week.  Holly also ate some pancake, which I thought was good news -- At least she was eating stuff and keeping it down.  That afternoon, she didn't eat her lunch and her temperature was still elevated.  It was a hot day again, so I decided to take her to the emergency clinic, about 20 minutes away.  I got the car running and turned on the air conditioning, then loaded her up and drove to the clinic.  Once there, they checked her in and started doing some diagnostics.  Her stomach was tender, and she flinched during the exam.  They took her back for x-rays and I went home because it would be a while (emergency clinics are absolutely nuts on weekends).  They called later that evening and said the x-rays were negative -- She hadn't swallowed anything, at any rate.  They wanted to do an ultrasound, so I OK'd that and they found a pocket of fluid in her abdomen.  They drew off a sample to see what it was -- It was brownish and they found that it was fluid leaking from the intestines.  She was scheduled for surgery.

Monday, June 30: Holly had surgery in the morning and they called during the procedure to tell me that there were numerous tumors on her small intestine and that one had ruptured the intestinal wall, spilling the contents into Holly's abdomen.  They said it was some form of cancer and the general indications were that it was fairly widespread.  My first reaction was not to wake her up -- To just put her to sleep then and there.  I had seen what treatments other people had put their dogs through and really wanted no part of that kind of thing for Holly.  The doctor said that it might not be serious, that they could remove that section of the intestine and do a biopsy and if it wasn't a treatable cancer, we could put Holly down later.  I decided to give it a try.  They said they'd call when they had more information.  I had a meeting to go to and took my cell phone just in case.  I also had a doctor's appointment that afternoon, so I went directly there after my meeting.  I called home to see if the vet had reported in and my wife was very upset.  They had called, not being able to reach my cell phone, asking her how she wanted them to handle the closing of the abdomen!  We could either have it closed, with drain tubes, or open(!).  She called our vet for an opinion because we had no idea what was best, and our vet said that leaving the incision open was the best option.  This was really stressful, having doctors asking us, who know nothing about this kind of thing, how to deal with a medical situation.  When I got home I called and spoke to the doctor, who told me Holly was doing OK.

Tuesday, July 1:  Holly was continuing to do well, eating(!) and the abdomen was draining well.  Part of the issue with this kind of surgery, I found out later, is that this drainage depletes the body's supply of albumin, a protein important for the healing process.  You want the drainage to slow as quickly as possible so that the healing process can begin -- If the drainage continues, you need to replenish the albumin supply somehow.

Wednesday, July 2: I had to fly to New Jersey.  While there, I called the hospital to check up on Holly's condition.  The vet had to call back later because she was with another patient.  When the doctor called back, she said that Holly was doing OK, but they were going to have to increase my deposit amount to cover the additional charges.  I told them this was OK, but I was planning to stop by the next morning on my way back home from the airport and would simply write them a check then.  The doctor said that would be fine.  The next thing I know after I arrive at my destination, my phone rings and it's the doctor again.  There's a problem with the payment -- They can't wait until the next morning, but have to have the payment right now!  This was absurd.  I gave them my credit card number, but I was getting concerned about maxing it out (at this point, the bill was up to $4500.00).  I told the doctor I was upset about this need to continually give them money up front.  They had my dog.  What was I going to do -- Stiff them?

Thursday, July 3: I got back to the airport, stopped by the hospital on my way home.  They brought Holly into a visiting room.  She was in rough shape but apparently doing OK.  Her midsection was wrapped in bandages, because it wasn't stitched shut.  Her tail was wagging when she saw me, which was great to see.  The doctor said the abdominal draining was lessening; she was being given human albumin to help with healing.  I was a bit concerned because her left rear leg was swollen -- That's where the I.V. was connected, and they had said that the human albumin might cause some swelling.  I just kept telling myself, at least she was alive and looked pretty good.

Friday, July 4: I checked in and was told that the doctors were going to make the decision about whether to close Holly's incision that evening.  She was still doing well, with reduced drainage and eating very well.  They called us about 11PM to say they were getting ready to close.  Another call came in at 1AM; they had closed Holly up and she looked good.  We could probably pick her up the next day!

Week 2

Saturday, July 5:  We called the hospital in the morning and checked to see if we could come by and pick up Holly.  They said we could come get her at around Noon .  We drove to the hospital and they were having a huge rush with all sorts of weekend emergencies, but we got in to see Holly and talk to the oncologist.  The cancer was definitely gastrointestinal lymphosarcoma.  It was supposedly very treatable, and the oncologist gave us several options.  We OKd the treatment, and they planned to start her that day.  It would take a couple of hours with the weekend emergency workload, so we killed a couple of hours by driving around, stopping to get a blanket for her to lie on in the car, and came back to pick her up.  She looked pretty rough, very sleepy, but very happy to see us.  There was a shaved area on her back with a medicine patch for the pain.  We got the various instructions for dealing with her, a packet of information on the medications she'd need and a medication schedule for the cancer drugs.  We got her home and were very happy to have her there.

Sunday, July 6 Friday, July 11:  This week saw a slow but steady recovery.  Initially Holly simply slept and kept mostly to herself, not wanting to have anything to do with Aurora.  She had a number of urination accidents in the house early in the week, but these were over by Tuesday.  Little by little she was getting back to normal.  I even had to take her out on a leash to keep her from chasing squirrels and possibly hurting herself or opening her incision, something that I was very worried about, especially in light of the albumin situation.  By Friday, she was about 90% back to being herself, the incision was healing very nicely, and she even grumbled at me for being late with lunch!

Part 2

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