Below are three stories of dogs very close to me and how they beat cancer in their own way. At the bottom of the article is a link to an organization trying end cancer in dogs forever.
My very first dog, was a 90lb chocolate Labrador, aptly named Mud. He was a classic outdoor dog, a stereotypical crazy Lab. I was around 4 years old when Mud arrived in my life and we spent our formative years together. Pictures help remind me of a young Mud slobbering in the September heat with me kneeling next to him in the dove field.
I was only 5 when I started to accompany Dad and Mud into the field. And since I was an only child, the dog quickly became my sibling. I fell in love with the outdoors and my passion for dogs grew. Mud was the first thing with 4 legs I ever loved. Since Mud was an outdoor dog, I spent many summers underneath the walnut tree in the backyard. I had a big turtle sandbox that he would dig down in to find the cool spot. I would dig beside him looking for buried treasure. Mud also had this outdoor self-feeding unit which was pretty revolutionary for its time. Mud, as most Labs, loved to eat. As we both aged, I never knew him to miss a meal; even when his muzzle changed from chocolate to gray. When he stopped eating, I knew something was wrong.
The vet told us that Mud had cancer and that the end was near. He got to experience life indoors those last few days and he got all the leftovers from my plate. Finally, when the cancer had all but overcome him, we put him to sleep. It was my 16th birthday.
Saying goodbye to him before we drove him to the vet was surreal. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. In my 16 years since that day, I may have seen one or two more tears from the man I consider a rock. Expressing and showing emotion was not a trait passed down from one Burnley man to the next. But on that rainy March day, I saw how much Mud meant to my father. I saw him let his guard down wear the pain on his face.
The cancer may have gotten the best of Mud, but it brought out the best in my Dad. He showed me it’s ok to show emotion and take the time to tell someone or some-pup how you feel before you say goodbye. It was one of the hardest days of my life, but Dad threw his arms around me and gave some much need perspective. Instead of focusing on the end, he said, focus on all the great memories the three of us shared in the field. From retrieving my very first duck in the frigid slough on a late December afternoon, to Mud traipsing through his name to pick up my very first banded bird in the muggy swamps of the Henderson Wildlife Refuge. Cancer took Mud’s life that day, but his memories brought Dad and I closer together. And in that way, cancer lost.
I met my beautiful bride 3 years ago, and with her came a light yellow Lab named Beau. Beau was a just a good boy; the kind of dog anyone looking for a best friend would want. He was sweet, loving, and mild-mannered. It was the first time I had ever met a Lab with his calm temperament. She had taught him how to bark on command, which I thought was the coolest thing, because I never had a dog that could do that. That’s right, Sarah checked all the boxes; beautiful, smart, and witty with a well-behaved dog. I fell in love with Beau as fast as I fell in love with Sarah.
Beau was only 6 when a limp in his back leg led us to a vet visit for what we thought was an ACL injury. As it turned out, cancer had made its second appearance in the life of my dogs. This round the cancer really hit home. Beau was in the prime of his life. I dreamed of taking him to The Country Club everyday along with Goose and Tag. How could this perfectly healthy dog be fine one day and have only 6 months to live the next?
It was certainly not fair, but then again, cancer doesn’t play by the rules. It picks the time and place without so much as a warning. We felt helpless. The options were amputation and/or chemotherapy. The chemo was not a guarantee, and we couldn’t bear the thought of putting a toxic chemical in Beau without him understanding what’s happening. We opted for amputation hoping it could stave off the cancer long enough to give us a few more months with him. After he was back on his feet from the operation, he was Beau again. He hopped a bit more than before, but his spunk and lovable character was back. We even took him on a road trip to South Carolina and went hiking. For a time we forgot about the cancer and just enjoyed our Beau. Although it eventually took his life, it didn’t stop him from living. And in that way, cancer lost.
Once The Country Club opened and I began training full-time, along came a barrel-chested, endless energy, ball crazy, yellow Lab named Messi. His parents brought Messi and his brother for 3 weeks of training with me last July. I was hooked on Messi. Never had I worked with a dog that had his drive. It was relentless and I loved that. Everyone at The Club knew about Messi because most employees had a hard time handling his energy, personality, and behaviors (i.e. running around a play yard with his own leash in his mouth and refusing to be come back). And yet, he was one of the best trained dogs I have ever worked with. That’s because Messi had a very small circle of people he liked and respected. I was happy to be one of them. If you were in the inner circle, he was totally off-leash trained and you could take him anywhere. I got to train him again during Thanskgiving and once more at Christmas. Even with a flu outbreak when Messi came down with a cough, he never slowed down.
Sarah also fell in love with Messi during his many visits and all the time I spent training him and his brother. During one of his most recent visits, Sarah had the boys out for playtime when she noticed a small lump on the side of Messi’s broad chest. We learned that his parents already knew about it and were awaiting the test results. For a dog who had yet to turn 3 years old, it was the worst possible diagnosis.
Inoperable because of its location, cancer once again punched me right in the gut. And he wasn’t even my dog! His family had a trip planned long before the diagnosis and because of our great relationship with him, we were happy to keep him one last time. The first few days he was a little more subdued from his normal self, but if you had never seen him before, you would have thought he was perfectly healthy. Even with his eyes still bright, he couldn’t hide the lump on his chest and slow-down of his step.
A few nights into their stay, the boarding staff went to feed dinner and Messi didn’t meet them at the door. He didn’t even touch his food and we knew that meant he wasn’t feeling well. Sarah and I decided he would be more comfortable in a home environment and so we took him with us to finish out his stay. On July 4th we decided he needed to see the doctor due to his belly being distended. A trip to Blue Pearl revealed our fear: the cancer had spread and he had started to bleed into his belly. My heart sank and my eyes welled. All I wanted was for him to hang on and see his family again.
That became our new mission: keep him going to see his family one last time. It was an arduous 5 days, but a change in medicine and routine helped Messi keep a little fire burning in his eyes. Sarah and I watched over him round the clock to make sure he got to see his family again. While this was but a small victory, and in no way cured him, I know it meant the world to his family. Messi passed last Sunday, but he did so surrounded by those that loved him most. And in that way, cancer lost.
Cancer can take a dog’s life, but it can’t take our memories of them. It can take a dog’s energy, but it can’t take their spirit. I wrote this blog to help me grieve those I’ve lost to this horrific disease, but I’m not one to let this get the best of me. It certainly couldn’t take the best of Mud, Beau, and Messi.
The National Canine Cancer Foundation is doing great work in the field of canine cancer. Donations fund research grants for scientists and medical professionals to study the disease and learn how to beat it. Myself and The Country Club made a memorial donation for Beau and Messi as a way to honor their fight with cancer. Please click on the link above to learn more about the NCCF and how you can help. Together we can make sure cancer loses for good.