November is National Pet Cancer Awareness month.
Affecting one in four dogs and one in five cats, cancer is the number one disease-related cause of death for dogs and cats in the United States. Today, I am writing to share my own personal experience with pet cancer, which our family dealt with not once but twice in a year.
My name is Rachel, and I am 360’s Operations Manager. Over my 11-12 years of experience in this field, I have been there as several patients have been diagnosed, treated for, or eventually succumbed to this awful disease. It’s an emotional thing… going from diagnosis to treatment, from treatment to hospice, and palliative care to humane euthanasia. Unfortunately, my experience with pet cancer became a bit more personal in 2020 and into 2021. What I’m hoping to help our readers gain from this article is a sense of understanding in the face of a terrible diagnosis. The hope we felt was real, and so was the heartbreak in loss or grief. I’m hoping our readers can understand the options they might have with a cancer diagnosis, as well as a first-hand experience of how it can go. Read on to find out what worked for our family, and how we could financially carry the burden of treatment costs that are not affordable for many people (including my family, but please read on).
Our oldest boy, Gio, did not have a straightforward diagnostic road. You may think that cancer diagnosis is as simple as seeing a bump, testing it, then confirming with other diagnostic imaging or submissions to outside labs. It certainly can be that simple, but it was not for us. For sweet Gio, we really didn’t know for sure what was going on until a month later when a heart-based tumor ruptured & we ended up rushing to PETS for humane euthanasia. Up until then, and even after consulting with the best veterinarians and specialists this valley has to offer, it was speculated/suspected to be a hemangiosarcoma. He presented with hemorrhaging/bruising in his armpit that spread subcutaneously throughout his abdomen. In the beginning, we were more worried about either blood-borne pathogens or anemic/clotting issues than we were concerned about cancer.
We worked closely with Bridger Veterinary Specialists and their board-certified DVMs in surgery, oncology, & internal medicine. I will never forget their compassion and empathy in the wake of this complicated case. Gio was 13 years old, and the hemorrhaging tumor in his armpit simply wasn’t treatable. I valued their realistic discussions of prognosis and expected outcome. It was very difficult to accept that my sweet best friend was going to pass away from this possibly soon, but I was so confident in our decisions because of BVS and their stellar care.
Only a few short months later, our younger boy Skiba started having some scary symptoms. He coughed up a small blood clot at first, but that escalated quickly into a much larger blood clot and a very worried mom. After some chest imaging, we were horrified to find out that Skiba had a huge mass in his chest. He was only 5 years old at the time, so while of course cancer was considered, it wasn’t actually very likely. He went to BVS for a consult and CT scan, a fresh wound for us as we had just been through some mud with Gio what felt like yesterday. The CT scan was initially reassuring as the mass was primarily fluid-filled, which meant it could be caused by non-cancerous things like an injury or foreign object. Either way, he needed the lung lobe removed.
Here is where I want our readers to understand the discussions that happen at this point in his diagnosis. At this point, we did not know for sure what was causing the mass. All we knew was that Skiba needed life-saving surgery, and we would know for sure once the pathology came back on the lung lobe. As a mom & wife with a family to support, you can imagine my head was spinning with the projected costs involved in all of this. More on that later. What mattered the most to us in this moment was trusting our doctors, the surgeon and oncologist at BVS. Dr. Carlsten, the oncologist, walked us through every scenario & treatment possibility, outcome. Dr. Wheeler, the surgeon discussed what life is like for a dog with one less lung lobe, recovery time, expected outcomes. After the most reassuring and realistic discussion about all of this, we moved forward with the surgery. Our big baby did very well through surgery & recovery was smooth. We were again so hopeful that this could all be over soon, as scary as it was.
When pathology came back, our worst-case scenario was now reality. It was cancer, Primary Pulmonary Hemangiosarcoma. A rare cancer, in an otherwise healthy, young, vibrant Staghound. We were heartbroken of course, but steadied ourselves. We prepared for 6 rounds of chemo, and he handled the treatments very well. Every bit of bloodwork, imaging, and progress exam showed promising results. He graduated from chemo, and we even had a little party for him with his own cake. It was a triumphant moment for a family that had really been through the muck with this stuff. Skiba was the success story we all deserve, but so rarely get.
Skiba’s success story ended a few months ago. His cancer came back in a sneaky, aggressive way. Undetectable until the visible bone tumor basically poked us in the face one day & finally explained his lameness over the previous weeks. Once again, Dr. Carlsten at BVS was incredibly realistic and honest about if treatment was an option and why or why not. This time around, it was not an option. It was too aggressive. We could have gone through the amputation & chemo rounds again, but we would be having this same conversation in a few months. Skiba told us it was time when it was time, and we had to let him go.
Now, I want to be realistic with our readers. This was an expensive journey. Our family is a modest middle-class family with 2 young boys to support & a mortgage to prioritize. There is literally only one way we could afford this: Pet Insurance. Our particular pet insurance company has a per-illness deductible of $500 and 90% coverage after that with no cap on payment. While we spent (gasp) upwards of $8,000 on him, we got back nearly $7,000. Gio’s treatment was the same scale, but much smaller. CareCredit and Trupanion Insurance together are the only reason we were able to do this. Without, we would have had to say goodbye in the beginning, there would have been no way we could risk financial ruin over pursuing such high-end treatment for our dogs. As much as we love them, it would not have happened. And both of our dogs were put on pet insurance before this happened, so our reimbursements were not complicated by pre-existing conditions (a downfall of every pet insurance company).
When I think back on all we’ve been through this past year with our two best boys, overwhelmingly I am grateful. Sad & grieving, but grateful. Our family has the capacity to hold both of those feelings and wear them well. We were surrounded by experts, and cared for with as much compassion as they were showing our pets. We were gifted almost an entire year with Skiba, when life expectancy for his cancer averaged closer to 2-3 months. I feel confident that we made the right choice for each of our boys. Our (human) boys still talk about Skiba & Gio almost on a daily basis, and we will be healing for our whole lives.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me personally if you have any questions about what we have gone through… either treatment-wise, financially, emotionally, whatever. I can’t tell you it will be easy, but it will be okay. Maybe not right now, but someday.
All my love & understanding,