One man's commentary on his dog's cancer


Holly's Story, Part 3


The worst thing about this experience was the fact that we thought we had Holly back twice in the three-week ordeal.  After the first week home, I was certain Holly was going to be fine.  She was eating like a pig, talking back and trying to chase squirrels from the bird feeders.  Then she took a turn for the worse and was back in the hospital.  We thought we were going to lose her that whole week, then the doctor told us we’d likely have her home that Sunday.  I went to the hospital that morning with a container of ham and turkey thinking I was getting my dog back that night, and came home with the untouched container and Holly’s collar and tags.  It was a terrible roller-coaster ride with a bad ending.

On the way home, I pulled the old penny I had found on the parking lot and kept for luck out of my pocket and threw it out the window of my car.

We knew we probably wouldn't have her back for very long -- a dog with untreated lymphoma lives less than two months -- but we just wanted her to have maybe another year of life.  

The autopsy showed that Holly had an infection that wasn’t being dealt with by any of the antibiotics she was being given, and the organisms were putting toxins into her system.  According to our vet, the antibiotics that might have worked on the infection were heavy-duty and would likely have damaged other systems in Holly’s body.  What I still don’t understand is how they missed this infection when they were supposedly culturing just about everything they could, both times she was in the hospital.  This is the frustrating thing about medicine, I guess.  It’s not a precise science.


They say Hindsight’s 20-20.  I find myself second-guessing myself on the decisions I made.  Obviously, if I could do it all over again, I would have taken her to the vet at the first sign of a fever.  That would have given us a two-day advantage in finding the problem and dealing with the peritonitis, and could have shifted things so that the chemotherapy didn’t interfere with the new antibiotics.

There’s no telling whether or not the chemotherapy led to the vomiting Holly experienced that kept us from getting the new antibiotics into her system, but then again how were we to know that they had the wrong antibiotics initially?  Still, I would change things so that we could do the chemotherapy on a day other than Saturday, because the only option for dealing with a bad reaction on Saturday afternoon or Sunday would be a trip to the hospital, 25 minutes away.  We opted to do the injections on Saturday at our local vet rather than make Holly take two 25-minute car trips to the oncologist every time.  

Holly had a bout of soft stools earlier in the year.  We had it checked out, but the vet couldn’t find a reason for it (parasites, etc).  In hindsight, I’m pretty sure this was an early sign of the intestinal cancer, and it’s too bad we didn’t know we should pursue it further.

My initial take when the word “cancer” came out of the phone was to let Holly be put to sleep then and there.  In retrospect, I wish I had because it would have saved her three weeks of pain and suffering.  But if I had, there would always have been the nagging doubt that I had done the right thing.  It isn’t an easy thing to deal with – You roll the dice on a not-so-simple decision:

1)      Put the dog down and wonder if you threw away a large part of her life – The recovery could have been pretty simple.

2)      Try to treat the cancer and give the dog a good portion of her life back.  The recovery could be simple or a prolonged period of suffering, with either success or failure at the end.  And once you start the process, when do you draw the line and say that the dog’s been through enough, and let her go?

We went for option 2 and unfortunately for Holly, there wasn’t a happy ending.  I have to deal with the memories of her state on that last day.  I haven't told my wife -- she doesn’t want to discuss the details and I don’t blame her – She feels badly enough without me unloading this onto her.

As for Holly, she had a great life until that last three weeks.  She had always lived in a home where we were around all day (we work out of the house) and she had a big yard to play in, and two other dogs to keep things interesting.  Life expectancy for a Siberian Husky is from 9-12 years.  Holly was 9.  Holly’s adopted sister, Innisfree’s Colleen Clyde, lived to 14.  So I guess we have had one on each end of the scale – I would rather have had Holly living an extra few years but obviously that wasn’t to be.

As I write this, it's been almost two years since Holly died of complications from lymphoma.  In that time, the pain of the loss has reduced somewhat but it's still there.  We have a photo that was taken several years ago that shows our (then) three Huskies -- Holly, Aurora and Clyde (Clyde was put down when she was 14 -- It was a sad occasion, but she had lived a great life and we knew it was her time) -- Whenever I look at the picture I feel a wave of grief come over me because Holly should still be here with us.  She was only 9 years old, full of life and always ready to take on whatever came along.  I don't know when that pain will fully disappear.

Holly, Aurora and Clyde

Aurora took the loss barely missing a beat, which surprised me.  Aurora had never been alone -- From the first day she arrived, there was always another dog around.  Aurora loves going for walks around town and I take her every day.  If I forget, she comes and stares at me to remind me.  I guess "all the treats, all the time" works for her and I'm not going to argue.

After Holly died, we thought about getting another dog right away, but Aurora just turned 13 and I don't think it would be fair to make her deal with a puppy at her age.  Maybe when Aurora's gone we'll get a new Husky.  We'll see.

Update 9/20/06

As I write this, it's been over three years since Holly died of cancer.  In fall of 2005, Holly's "sister", Aurora, died of old age very peacefully in our living room.  We were pretty sure we wanted to get a new dog, but I think both my wife and I needed some time to decompress from the intense care Aurora needed, and to be sure we didn't rush into getting a new dog.

We finally picked out a new Siberian Husky on Mother's Day 2006, and Bree is now just over six months old.

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