People talk a lot about fate. We often wonder if there is a mysterious force that guides and shapes our lives. I don’t know if I believe that life is an inevitable, unchangeable course of events, but I do think that some things don’t happen by accident; that sometimes there must be something else steering us in certain ways. Given this, would you think I was crazy to say that I believe it was fate that my dog got cancer?
Gryphon’s journey through cancer has been one of hope, faith, love and a reminder that we cannot possibly predict what will happen. I like to think that ultimately there is a reason for it all and that his story will give comfort to many people.
April 4th, 2008 was an ordinary spring day and since it was a Friday I had scheduled Gryphon to have a minor procedure done to remove a small growth on his front leg. No big deal really, and due to my trust in his doctor and my own background I was never too worried about the procedure or what the bump may be. We were pretty confident that it was nothing and we were removing it “to be safe.” As I dropped him off at the vet I mentioned that since he was under we might as well go ahead and clean his teeth. I then went about my morning.
It’s funny how quickly so much can change. Just like that. Your reality shifts with a few words: “He has a large tumor in his mouth.”
It is still very hard for me to explain to people what that moment was like. Of course I was shocked-how could I not be? Just two weeks prior I had watched my vet examine Gryphon, including his mouth, and now he was saying he had a large tumor? My shock was combined with a complete feeling of dread. I know just how serious oral tumors can be, especially one that had grown so quickly. What I didn’t know was the rollercoaster ride that was to come and how one little black dog could teach the world what it means to live in the moment.
I choose to not dwell on the day of his diagnosis, or even the few weeks after as they were filled with all the things you’d expect such as fear and sadness. I will say that the irony of a retriever getting oral cancer was not lost on me and it broke my heart when he was no longer able to do what he loved most, not to mention that ultimately we expected to be faced with a quality of life issue due to the tumor’s location more so than the disease making him “sick.” It was hard to fathom that my dog’s like would end not because his body was racked with disease, but because he had an incontrollable growth of cells in his mouth. It just seemed like a cruel twist of fate. But there is a theme in this story-here you are going down a road and you think you know where you are going but then suddenly you make a sharp turn where you least expect it. The first turn in the road occurred with a twisted game called “Name that Cancer!”
Nothing has ever been easy when it comes to Gryphon. It’s just not his style. In so many ways he’s been the most challenging dog I have ever had but he has also taught me the most about life and what it means to live (and love). From that first day I should have seen it all coming-I am sure that Fate was laughing in the wings as we took him home from the breeder that day back in 1996. Through all his escapades over the years he’s kept us on our toes-why should cancer be any different?
Usually cancer diagnosis is a rather straightforward thing. Doctor takes tissue sample and sends it to a lab where another doctor who specializes in pathology determines what kind of tumor it is. Pretty cut and dry. Not in Gritty’s case! The first result came back as lymphoma which was a surprise. We had the sample checked by another pathologist and they said it could be lymphoma or amelanotic melanoma (non-pigmented). Further testing said it was a plasma cell tumor and a third pathologist said she couldn’t really give a definitive answer.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a problem except that all three types of cancer have different treatment plans and prognoses. So, after an MRI, lymphoma staging, a round of chemotherapy and tracking down researchers at UC Davis, we finally had a conclusion-Gryphon had a plasmacytoma which is a cancer of the plasma cells. Interestingly enough it was the diagnosis we least expected and it was the very best news possible. In a span of a few weeks we went from thinking that there was little we could do to learning that the kind of cancer he had was very treatable. So then the next hurdle was treatment.
The first thing to be done was to “debulk” the tumor which entailed my regular vet removing as much of the cancerous tissue as possible without any radical surgery. This would then lessen the amount that would need to be radiated. Radiation would be full course-18 treatments in all done 5 days a week for 3 ½ weeks. I was able to watch the surgery (benefit of having worked at the hospital that treats him) and he gave me the first indication of how tough he is-although the tumor was huge (covering almost 3 of his upper teeth) he sailed through it and was well enough to go on a 2 mile walk the next day. You’d have never known that he’d just had surgery. The joy he felt that day walking in the park was palpable. I was reminded that he didn’t know that he had cancer and it was my job to try and live as he does-moment to moment with no thought of what may be.
When his mouth was healed we embarked on his radiation and once again we would encounter some interesting developments (this is Gryphon after all). On his first day I was nervous enough but I nearly had a breakdown when his oncologist came out and told me that he had had some cardiac arrhythmias during the anesthesia. So began more testing and consultation with a cardiologist. In the end they said that the PVCs (premature ventricular contractions) appeared to be cause by stress and since they were isolated and stopped after he was under anesthesia they weren’t dangerous. Uh, okay. Needless to say despite these reassurances I feared he would go into cardiac arrest and die. It made the month of treatment feel even longer and I prayed that he would just make it through each day. But despite this added stress his attitude was always positive. He loved going to the vet every day (he always has) and getting attention from his “ladies.” I did notice toward the end that the routine was wearing on him, but the only sign he showed was a slight hesitation to get out of the car in the morning.
All in all his radiation treatment was much easier than I had anticipated. There was a big unknown going in as I wasn’t sure what to expect even though I knew people who had gone through it themselves. It’s hard to explain what it’s like. It was by far the longest month of my life and I cried when it was over. But in many ways I don’t know if I would take it back if I could. That time with Gryphon was very unique and only solidified our bond. We’ve been through Hell and back and his illness only brought us closer. I even created a playlist on my Ipod that we listened to each morning as we drove to the clinic and now when I hear those songs I think of that time and do so with fondness.
After the treatment was complete we were told to let him rest and let his body heal. One month post radiation his recheck showed that the cancerous tissue responded excellently to radiation and was reduced to the “microscopic level” meaning that it was put into remission. It was the news that I had least expected-only two months prior I was preparing to say goodbye to my dear friend and now they were telling me that he should be in remission for a year or two? Even now I don’t know if I fully appreciate the magnitude of our fortune. To celebrate we took him on a 6 mile hike in the Colorado Rockies and we were stopped by quite a few people who would ask, “How old is he??” Apparently they were impressed that an 11 ½ year old dog had so much vigor. Hey, that was nothing! I proudly told him his advanced age and I added that he was a recent cancer survivor. I was ready to tell anyone I could what he had overcome.
The months that have followed have been marked by extremes-utter happiness and heart stopping fear. A few months post radiation his oncologist told us that we could do surgery now and Gryphon would be considered “cured.” It’s very rare that you hear that and it took us awhile for it to sink in. Ultimately we have decided that oral surgery poses too many risks for a less than ideal quality of life afterward and if the tumor comes back we will deal with our options then. We wanted Gryphon to enjoy the time he has left and he has done a good job at doing just that. He spent the summer swimming and hiking, we had a cancer remission pool party, and in August he made his official DockDogs debut. I then had the crazy idea that he could qualify for Nationals so in September he jumped 5 times in one day and made it through. He proudly wore his “Cancer Survivor” vest made by his Aunt April and the crowd brought tears to my eyes when they cheered him on. It was quite a day. And of course we had our wonderful road trip to Wisconsin with Aunt Cera, Aunt Kristi, cousin Buddy and cousin Elsie and it did much to heal our hearts and souls.
But of course there has been drama too. He burned his feet at the first event (our fault although I thought we were being super careful), then he developed a huge hygroma on his elbow, he was rushed to the emergency room with a mystery illness in September (we thought we might lose him but once again he proved us wrong), he broke into the pantry the night before we were to leave for Wisconsin and had to be taken in so they could make him puke (imagine me chasing him around the yard with a turkey baster full of peroxide and I am sure you will chuckle), he had an enlarged spleen but it went back to normal and everything else checked out okay, and in January he developed vestibular syndrome which we think was caused by an ear infection and the poor guy couldn’t walk he was so dizzy. He’s much better now and has earned two new nicknames—Tilt ‘O Whirl and Weeble Wobble.
So we are now over 7 months post radiation and he is still in remission. He is facing all the challenges that old dogs do, but I don’t regret anything about his treatment and I don’t know if I had the chance to change the fact that he got cancer if I would. I really do think that it was fated for him to go through this and it is our job to use his story and amazing spirit to inspire people and to show them that cancer isn’t always a death sentence and the most important thing is to live in the moment and cherish every day that you have. I have met so many amazing people over the last two years in an effort to Chase Away K9 Cancer, and it is no accident that my own dog would be faced with such a battle. We’ve had two other dogs with cancer but Gryphon is the one who is meant to make a difference, whether it be working with children who have cancer (his most recent job), educating people about what cancer treatment for dogs entails, or by simply reminding me why I do what I do. I hope his story motivates people to become involved and reminds them of the importance of hope, faith and love.
Finally, I cannot end this without thanking all the people who were there for us. The support we received was nothing short of amazing and I am most touched by those who knew me only online but took the time to pray for Gryphon. And of course that little black dog wouldn’t be here if not for the compassionate care he received from his regular doctor, Mike Herman, and his oncologist, Robyn Elmslie. I know that Dr. Elmslie and her staff cherish Gryphon’s good health and it gives me great joy to show them videos of the old man jumping off the dock. It just proves that you never know where Fate may take you.
Sadly Gritty lost his battle with cancer in April 2010, he lived life to the fullest and fought cancer with a passion like no other but in the end his age and the cancer took their toll on him. Thank you Gritty for showing all of us how good life is and to take each and everyday as a gift worth cherishing. I know I will never forget you and will always keep the memories of our road trips across this country together very near and dear to my heart. Love and miss you …….Cera