A sad milestone came up: I call it Remembrance Day rather than Death Anniversary.
I had just undergone my annual mammogram and was awaiting the results, which normally came in the mail.
A phone call announced, “I’m sorry to tell you, we have the test results and it’s not good news. The diagnosis is lymphoma.”
I was stunned, and momentarily confused, until it registered that the female voice on the phone was calling from the veterinary hospital. I had a clean bill of health, but my dog had cancer.
The image of a 1970s made-for-TV movie flashed into my mind: Mary Tyler Moore, starring in “The true story about every woman’s nightmare, breast cancer in this case — First . . .you cry.” Crying isn’t my usual first reaction to bad news — I prefer to take direct action. Our vet recommended a hospital in upstate New York that specialized in animal oncology.
Two days later, we drove for 90 minutes in a very quiet car. My dog sat straight up on the back seat for the entire trip. She used to love riding in the car but now, aging and arthritic, she refused to lie down. My husband was still recovering from a serious winter injury and squirmed in the seat, trying to get comfortable. I was a ball of nerves.
During our first, lengthy consultation with the oncologist, she watched Reni prance around her office, curious and active, relieved to be out of the car. The doctor marveled at my dog’s energy and youthfulness, at age 17. She explained that canine lymphoma is an incurable disease, but treatment can result in good quality of life. She gave me a handwritten page with three options for course of treatment, and the costs of each. I asked Dr. Gill if she had other canine patients of Reni’s age and prognosis. She did. Watching my little black dog sniff around, stopping to look up at us, I asked if those pet owners felt it was worth the cost and effort. She said yes, they all agreed they would do the same thing again, even if their beloved pet’s life was only prolonged for a short time.
My husband and I glanced at each other, nodding, and I circled our choice of treatment: the most expensive and aggressive. I knew it would mean emptying our savings account and maxing out our credit cards, but Reni obviously wanted to live, so we committed ourselves to helping her do that.
My little Pomeranian was placed on several medications which I ground up in her food. The pills made her eat and drink more than usual, so she urinated more than usual. It wasn’t feasible to walk her outside frequently enough, so we saved all our newspapers, even taking our neighbor’s Sunday Times from their recycle box. It felt like we were back to puppy days.
The vet said I could administer the chemotherapy tablet as well, but it couldn’t just be dissolved in food. I would have to wear surgical gloves and take precautions against compromising my own immune system. I decided to have the vet’s staff handle that. Thankfully, chemotherapy doesn’t affect animals as viciously as it does humans. There’s no hair loss, nausea or depression. Reni actually gained three ounces in a month. She slept more, but awakened, she was fully alert and engaged, ready to chase chipmunks, bark at intruders, and investigate all the new smells in her little corner of the world. We had a year together — and then the cancer returned.
Reni and I had a longstanding ritual as we took our morning walk. No matter the weather, no matter how early we each arose from bed, as she trotted down the driveway, my little old dog would stop halfway, turn her head skyward, inhaling the day’s beginning. She then turned to look me in the eye, head cocked, as if to say, “Isn’t this all wonderful?”