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"Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole."

(Roger Caras)

Living with Canine Lymphoma
© Copyright 1998-2010, Donna D'Amico

Katie, an English Shepherd

© 1996-2010 Gay Currier

My nightmare started around midnight on a Friday evening toward the end of July, 1998. I was rubbing Katie's tummy when my hand slipped into one of her armpits and came into contact with a lump that shouldn't have been there. I slept very little that night and as soon as I got up on Saturday I made an appointment for later that afternoon with her veterinarian. At her exam my worst fears were realized. Katie had multicentric malignant lymphoma (intermediate grade).

Katie's prognosis was guarded. My practical alternatives were: 1-to keep her comfortable and let nature take its course (expected survival time 4-8 weeks), or 2-to treat her aggressively using combination and single-agent chemotherapy regimens (expected survival times 6-24 months with an average of 12 months).

There was really no decision to make. Katie was not yet ill and I couldn't bear the thought of losing her in 60 days or less. And I was assured that dogs tolerate chemotherapy far better than do people. To her advantage, I had caught her condition early before she became ill which might increase our chance of success. So on Wednesday, July 29, Katie was examined by Dr. Steve Crow, oncologist at Sacramento Animal Medical Group and began chemotherapy immediately.

Katie's chemotherapy treatments went well. Her only reaction to chemo was loose stool for several days after treatment. After completing the "POLCA" chemotherapy protocol, Katie was pronounced to be in remission. In October 1998 the decision was made to use a biological response modifier, specifically a monoclonal antibodies treatment. This immunomodulator was considered a generally safe and effective adjunct to chemotherapy that sometimes helped to produce very long remissions. Katie was hospitalized for a week to undergo the treatment after which, her former energy level returned and she continued to have a great time participating in the sport of agility.

In September 1999 I found another lump under Katie's foreleg. A visit with her oncologist confirmed that my nightmare had returned. After more than a year in remission, Katie's cancer was back. As depressing as this was, the fact that she had remained in remission so long without additional chemotherapy was greatly in her favor. Katie's chances of another remission were estimated to be in the 80% range and so we began the "POLCA" chemotherapy protocol a second time. In December 1999 she received the monoclonal antibodies treatment a second time and remained in remission until June 2000.

Finding a lump for the third time in June 2000 was terribly depressing. Although I knew we had been extremely fortunate and had already beaten the 12 month average life span after diagnosis, I still felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under me. After consultation with her oncologist we decided to give this dog with the indomitable spirit another chance and once more she went through a 9 week chemotherapy protocol and a third monoclonal antibodies treatment. And wonder of wonders, she went back into remission (odds were against her this time) and once again she went back to doing what she loved most in life, agility (and chasing rats in the backyard).

In the summer of 2000 her oncologist gave her less than 6 months to live. She fooled everyone and almost a year and a half later was still alive and enjoying herself thoroughly. In November of 2001 however, Katie relapsed once again. We continued to treat, but while we were able to celebrate her 10th birthday and enjoy one final Christmas together, she passed away in January 2002. Every day together those last 3+ years was a gift; her courage and spirit an inspiration. For 10 years I had been rewarded with companionship, love and unparalleled devotion. Katie changed my life in any number of ways and for this I am very grateful. I miss her terribly and my life is just not the same without her.

Katie, always

© 1999-2010 Ann Clayton Photography

Canine lymphoma is an incurable disease. However treatment can result in a good to excellent quality of life for most affected dogs. Please, if you do not already do so, check your dog regularly for lumps and bumps, including the throat and arm pits. The sooner lymphoma is discovered the better the prognosis. And please, should your dog be diagnosed with lymphoma, contact The Morris Animal Foundation. They are extremely helpful and will send you information on this condition at your request at no cost.

What was it like living with a dog with lymphoma? It had its moments. It would be an understatement to say you are on an emotional roller coaster. You find yourself in tears with no forewarning when you least expect it. But there are the good times too. The times when the two of you share a very special moment and you appreciate it all the more because you know it may never come your way again. There is the downside. Fear and foreboding. Diarrhea, vomiting. A sick dog in your lap. But there is the up side too. Bright eyes, a wagging tail. A burst of energy and high spirits. A loving heart. And there is hope, always hope.

Would I treat another dog I might have that came down with lymphoma? In a heart beat. Oh, the treatment wasn't fun, for either of us. But it wasn't as bad as it might have been either. And the additional time we had together has been beyond price. Be it a day, a week, . . .

Katie - doing what she loves most, agility

© 2000-2010 Tien Tran

Andy, doing what he loved to do - jump

© 1996-2010 Ann Clayton Photography

Over Labor Day, 2006 my 13 year old Welsh Springer, Andy, was diagnosed with lymphoma. At first I was so stunned I could hardly think. I couldn't imagine going through this again, but this time with a 13 year old dog instead of one in her prime years.

I went back to Katie's oncologist to get a better idea of how much time Andy might have left (6 weeks without treatment) and for information about how to make his last days as comfortable as possible. The consultation revealed that there had been a number of changes in the treatment of lymphoma since 1998-2002. Much to my surprise I found myself consenting to a very simple chemotherapy protocol with the primary purpose of keeping Andy comfortable while buying him some more time. None of the chemotherapy cocktails that were appropriate for Katie. Just one drug at a time so that we can monitor him more easily with less stress on the body of an aging gentleman.

While the first two medications we tried had little to no effect, the third put Andy into remission. The only reaction to chemotherapy is loose stool for about 48 hours after the treatment and we now have a medication that is mitigating even that. As for Andy, the lymphoma appears to bother him not at all. At his age we are having more trouble with a weak rear end than with the cancer. He has a great appetite, still enjoys his exploration of our acre and as always loves nothing more than being with us 24/7.

Treating a 13.5 year old dog for lymphoma? Not something I ever thought I would do. But to date it's bought us months of high quality life he wouldn't have otherwise had. It seems sure that we will not be buying years here, but the months are so precious that I am glad that I made the decision to give treatment a chance.

Update March 2007: After more than 6 months on chemotherapy enjoying an excellent quality of life, Andy's rear end gave out and he told us in no uncertain terms that he was ready to go. Thanks to a dear friend who also happens to be a veterinarian, Andy spent his last minutes here at home in his favorite room with my arms around him. I still glance at his favorite dog bed and expect to see him there on his back, all 4 feet in the air. He is greatly missed.

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Last revised: 11/2009