Here for a good time, not a long time

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Dec 15, 2016

My dog, Riley, has cancer — squamous cell carcinoma in his salivary gland, to be precise. I discovered it because I felt a large lump, about the size of a Bing cherry, on the side of his neck.

Oddly enough, when I first felt it, I wondered if it might be cancer. We took Riley to the vet, who examined him and extracted some cells from the lump with a syringe. When she looked at the cells under a microscope, she said he had a bacterial infection and gave us some antibiotic pills for him. I was very relieved to think we'd dodged a bullet.

After 10 days or so on the antibiotic, the lump was still there, and we took Riley back to the vet, where he saw a different practitioner this time. Now when the needle biopsy was taken and the cells examined, they looked much different than before, according to the second vet. He said Riley most likely had had an infection that was masking the underlying cancer. The slide from the second needle biopsy was sent out to a lab for confirmation, and when the verdict came back, my little dog's fate was sealed — cancer.

I say, “my,” because Riley, who is half-poodle, half-Cocker Spaniel, was a birthday present from Maureen in 2003 — he'll be 14 in February. I am his primary caretaker and make the ultimate decisions about his care. But just as I care for and love the German Shepherds, which are “Maureen's,” she cares for and loves Riley. She drove Riley and me to Portland last week for a consult with a veterinary oncologist. After further testing, he told us Riley was not a candidate for surgery because of the location of the mass in his neck, right close to his voice box. Too many things that might go wrong there.

He showed us the tumor on the CT scan and outlined the options for chemotherapy — there are a couple of different agents they use — and/or radiation. He was kind and thorough answering all our questions.

I talked to a couple of friends and thought about it over the weekend, eventually deciding to try intravenous chemo to be administered in the office in Portland. Riley's first appointment was earlier this week. The oncologist said dogs are less apt to have side-effects from chemotherapy than people, and the side-effects they do have are usually milder than in people. I hope that's true for Riley. Since no cure is expected, if the treatment makes him feel worse for more than a short time, it's probably not worth it.

Given the cost of treatment and my limited resources, I thought hard about whether to treat Riley at all, or simply to let him go on as long as he felt good, give him pain medication when he started to hurt, and put him to sleep when his life was more pain than fun. I decided to see if the chemo could extend his good time for some months. It was painful for me to have money come into this decision, but that was unavoidable. In the end, I decided I could dedicate a certain amount to treatment and see how things went.

It's difficult to have the responsibility for another creature's life in my hands. Will I treat or not? For how long? What happens when the money that can be devoted to treatment runs out? I won't love Riley any less at that point than I do now. But, I tell myself, I will have given him that much more good time, and buying time is what this treatment is all about. In a sense, it's what all medical treatment is about.

Dogs love their people with no judgment and no reserve, and also without sentimentality. I want to give Riley the same kind of love — accepting, unconditional and willing to let go when it's time. It is important to me not to keep him alive just for my sake, when his life isn't fun anymore.

I'm reminded of a wonderful thing our former vet, the exceptional Jim Laurita, said when he came to our house to put down a dog who was ready to leave this world: “They're not here for a long time, they're here for a good time.”

Not a bad way to look at life, for a person or a dog.

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