Canine cancer survivors still enjoy life

Gambit

Gambit is a 15-year-old Shih Tzu-poodle cross who has been living with cancer since 2010. Photo courtesy of Dr. Valerie MacDonald.

Gambit is a 15-year-old Shih Tzu-poodle cross who loves to roll on his back. “I call it his happy dance,” says his owner Sharon Morgan of Saskatoon, Sask. “When he’s on his back wiggling and rolling around, either in the grass or the snow, you can just tell he’s ecstatic. He’s in that doggy heaven, and life is good.”

As Morgan describes Gambit and his favorite activities, it’s hard to believe that he’s been living with cancer since 2010.

Since he was diagnosed with pulmonary papillary adenocarcinoma – a tumour on his right lung – in September of 2010, Morgan and Gambit have been regular visitors to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Medical Centre.

“When we go to the clinic, everybody knows Gambit,” says Morgan. “The oncologists, radiologists, technicians, pharmacists and the people who work at the front are all exceptional. They’re a really supportive group, and I couldn’t think of a better place to take him.”

While Morgan acknowledges that some people might question her decision to treat Gambit following his initial diagnosis of cancer, she points out that everybody lives their own experience.

“What’s right for my dog isn’t necessarily right for somebody else’s. But you know your own animals and your relationship with them better than anyone else. You just have to do what you think is right.”

Her philosophy is shared by Dr. Mandy Tallant whose pet Jojo, a 14-year-old mixed breed rescue dog, has also been living with cancer since 2010. Since his initial diagnosis of canine lymphoma, Jojo has undergone three rounds of chemotherapy, and his cancer is currently in remission.

canine oncology patients

From left to right: animal health technologist Melissa Underhill with Jojo; oncology resident Dr. Kirsty Elliot with Oliver; and animal health technologist Kim Foster with Magnus. Photo: Myrna MacDonald.

“I think of it the same as treating a chronic disease like kidney disease or skin disease,” says Tallant who is a small animal surgical resident at the WCVM.

“And chemotherapy for dogs is not as difficult as it is for people. While Jojo’s undergoing chemotherapy, he has a couple of days now and then when he’s a little bit tired, but other than that you wouldn’t know anything was wrong with him.”

Since cancer cells often become resistant to the chemotherapy drugs after only one course of treatment, Jojo has been fortunate that he’s been able to get through three courses with only a few changes in the drug protocol.

Tallant says they’ve also been lucky that Jojo is such a compliant patient. “He was never a good patient with me, but he’s very excited to see anybody related to the oncology department. They keep his own favorite cookies on hand, and they spend a lot of time with him. They do that for all of their oncology patients.”

Gambit and his owner Sharon Morgan

Sharon Morgan: “Gambit is just my gallant little hero.” Photo courtesy of Dr. Valerie MacDonald.

Since his initial diagnosis, Gambit has undergone two surgeries – one to remove the tumour from his lung and another to remove a subsequent tumour from his thyroid gland.

But when the cancer returned to his lung in September of 2011, veterinary medical oncologist Dr. Valerie MacDonald and oncology resident Dr. Kirsty Elliot conferred with Dr. Suresh Sathya, one of the WCVM’s small animal surgical residents. They recommended no further surgery.

“That’s the one thing that I really, really appreciate,” Morgan says. “They’ve always given me all the information so that I can make the decision for Gambit based on how I feel his quality of life is, and what I feel is best for him.”

And although Gambit is now considered palliative, Morgan is confident that his quality of life is still good. Despite some trouble with swallowing due to an unrelated condition called mega esophagus, he still has a good appetite and has been able to maintain his weight.

He also enjoys playing with his housemates – a rescue poodle named Phoenix as well as four cats. While Morgan can see that he’s slowed down, she points out that at 15 years old, he’s considered a senior dog – and the equivalent of a 76-year-old person.

As a nurse at Saskatoon’s Sherbrooke Community Centre, Morgan is accustomed to working with seniors, and she compares her work there to the extra care she provides for Gambit.

“At Sherbrooke, we try to provide an environment that enables our residents to lead full and abundant lives, and that’s how I look at caring for Gambit. I’m just trying to make his life as good as possible.”

Jojo

A closeup of Jojo during one of his chemotherapy treatments at the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre. Photo: Myrna MacDonald.

Now that his cancer is in remission again, Jojo enjoys hanging out with the three other dogs in his house – a group that Tallant calls her “geriatric crowd.” Other than a couple of age-related issues, Jojo is in good health, and he’s definitely enjoying life.

As Tallant reflects on their experience with cancer, she points out that canine lymphoma is probably one of the best cancers in terms of prognosis.

“It’s one of those cancers that’s worth treating, and you at least get a time period where you can do whatever you want to do for those last months with your dog. You have time to prepare yourself and to say goodbye.”

In November 2012, Gambit and his owner Sharon Morgan made an unscheduled trip to the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre to drop off a birthday cake celebrating Gambit’s 15th birthday.

“He’d just been to the groomer, and he was wearing this little bow that had ‘birthday boy’ on it,” describes Morgan. “He trotted in with me, and said hello to everybody, and he was so happy. They were busy, so we just dropped the cake off, but later they gathered in the back and took pictures and sang happy birthday to Gambit. That’s the kind of people they are.”

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