“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but it’s lymphoma.”
It was May 17, 2018, when we received the phone call from Dr. B of Veterinary Specialty Care with news that would change the course of our lives. Our handsome, beloved Lab/bull terrier pup, Willow, was diagnosed with the worst possible cancer for a dog — stage V, T-cell gastrointestinal canine lymphoma. With treatment, the prognosis was approximately six months. … And without it, two to four weeks. We adopted Willow from Wild Heir Lab Rescue when he was just 3 months old. With no two-legged kids, Willow was our child, our everything. He had the shiniest black coat, was the smartest dog you ever met and was always healthy — until lymphoma. Canine lymphoma is one of the most common forms of cancer in dogs. It’s an aggressive, incurable cancer, but it can be treated to extend quantity and quality of life.
There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment.
The amount of information available on what works, what doesn’t, diets, etc., for lymphoma is overwhelming. Each dog is different, and each dog will respond differently to varied treatment plans. It’s best to trust the experts and build out your “expert team” to help you determine what is best for your dog.
Our team consisted of our vets Drs. Bret and Erin Burton from Long Point Animal Hospital; Veterinary Specialty Care oncologists Dr. Michelle Wall, Dr. Kathryn Taylor and Dr. Gabrielle Angelo (and their vet techs); and our holistic vet, Dr. Kristi Oldham. This team guided us, supported us and helped with a combination of chemotherapy, diet and natural supplements.
I was initially skeptical of having three oncologists in rotation for our appointments at Veterinary Specialty Care. However, I soon realized how lucky we were with three times the amount of expertise. They took as much time as needed to answer my endless questions; helped us stay positive even when receiving bad news; and were always honest and straightforward about what was happening to Willow, along with explaining any recommended next steps.
I knew Dr. Oldham through Lowcountry Lab Rescue, a group for which we have fostered and volunteered for years. When we first received Willow’s diagnosis, she was one of the first people I contacted. She came to our house within two days, assessed
Willow and customized an all-natural diet plan based on his symptoms and type of lymphoma. She spent hours walking me through everything, providing me resources, and even explained details on how to cook some of the food. She was also available by text at any time for questions, advice or just my need for reassurance.
There is no perfect treatment plan, and the plan will change as the lymphoma fights back, but having your expert team will give you the confidence to keep fighting. Keep in mind that you know your dog better than anyone, and any treatment decisions you make are the right decisions because, ultimately, you are the best expert for your dog.
Time is precious. Make memories.
Canine lymphoma is described as a roller-coaster ride. You have highs — and a lot of lows. One day you’re beating the cancer, and the next day you’re losing the battle. You learn that time becomes precious. Work was suddenly not as big of a priority. We canceled vacations and sat out from fun boat days with our friends. We knew this disease would take our baby, and we wanted to spend the unknown time we had left making memories with him.
We created a bucket list and tried to do as much as we could. We took him swimming in a friend’s parents’ pool. We went for walks on the beach, golf-cart rides around the neighborhood and “yappy hours” with the neighbors. We captured his paw-print imprints with paint on canvas. And sometimes, we just had lazy days curled up together on the couch.
About a month into Willow’s illness, I realized that we had hundreds and hundreds of pictures of Willow, but we had very few pictures with both me and Bradley in the photo with Willow. We decided to hire a photographer to take professional photos of Willow, including photos of us with him. I searched online for local pet photographers and sent an email with our story to a couple of them. Jeanne Taylor responded quickly to our story and offered us a free photo shoot as part of a program she has for terminal pets. This offer meant so much to us given the amount of money we were already spending on Willow’s treatment.
Jeanne came over to our house one hot and humid Saturday morning. She offered Willow a treat, and he immediately gobbled it down and wanted more. This was during a period of time when Willow wasn’t eating, so my husband and I were amazed. Jeanne took Willow into our backyard, just the two of them, to take — what we would find out later — the most amazing shots of Willow that truly captured his personality and spirit.
She then took more photos of us with Willow — being so patient to take breaks inside to let Willow rest and cool off. She humored us with golf-cart ride photos and the different collars and scarfs we wanted him to wear. My favorite memory of the day was when Jeanne suggested we take a photo with Willow sitting on our porch swing. “He will never get on this swing,” I told her, “We’ve tried in the past, but he has no interest. We can try though.” Bradley and I sat down, and, within a second, Willow jumped up on the swing, curled up in between us, and looked right at Jeanne like he was saying, “OK, I’m ready for my close up.” We all had such a good laugh.
Now we have the most amazing photos of Willow and photos of us with Willow. What is even more special, however, is that we had the most fun that day (Willow included), and the memory of that day will always be one of my favorites.
Celebrate their life — and look for the signs.
On August 19, 2018, Willow lost his three-and half-month battle with GI lymphoma. He went to sleep peacefully in our arms while we held his paws, kissed his head, and told him how much we loved him.
Our grief of losing Willow just months from his eighth birthday was immense, but we wanted to channel our grief into celebrating his memory, and we did so by thanking the people who were there for us during the last months of his life. We wrote thank-you notes to all of the vets and oncologists, friends, family, and neighbors who supported us. We delivered pizzas to Veterinary Specialty Care as a thank-you to everyone there, and we wore “Willow the Warrior” T-shirts we made with Willow’s paw prints on them.
Soon after Willow passed, Jeanne Taylor stopped by our house to personally deliver the amazing album and photos we ordered from her photo shoot with us. Jeanne told us to be open to looking for signs — that Willow’s spirit would visit us, and we would notice it through signs. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I kept an open mind about it.
Two days after Willow’s passing, Bradley and I drove to a local plant nursery and picked out a tree to plant in our backyard in honor of Willow’s memory. While we were looking at the trees and trying to decide which one to choose, a single butterfly appeared and began flying around a holly tree. We then knew that was the tree to get — it was Willow’s tree. That following weekend we were on a boat ride with friends in the middle of the harbor. Two butterflies appeared out of nowhere and fluttered all around us. We began to see butterflies everywhere — and still see them often — especially in moments when we may be feeling sad. I know it’s the signs Jeanne talked about, and Willow is letting us know that his spirit will always be with us.
Your heart is bigger than you think.
We have been involved as fosters and volunteers with Lowcountry Lab Rescue, a local dog rescue that is near and dear to our hearts. Willow was a foster brother to 10 dogs rescued from local high-kill shelters. He was patient with these dogs, shared his toys and shared his humans with them. Willow played an important role in helping us rehabilitate the dogs and helping them find loving, forever homes.
After losing Willow, another way we coped with our grief was to throw ourselves into our rescue work and start fostering to help save lives in honor of Willow’s life. We call our fosters “Willow’s Warriors.” We agreed that we would foster, and, then, when we were ready, we would adopt again.
We have fostered three dogs since last August, and the third dog we fostered never left. We fell in love with a block-headed, spunky, approximately 3-year-old dog from Lowcountry Lab Rescue via Berkeley Animal Center. Bradley and I never thought we would ever be ready to open our hearts to adopting so soon after losing Willow. However, this sweet girl made it quite clear that she chose us, and we remain convinced Willow sent her our way knowing we were the ones needing rescuing.
We named her August; we didn’t want the month of August to forever be sad. We want to remember that month for when we had the last few weeks of time with Willow — time we will always treasure. We tell August often about her spirit brother, Willow. Through her, we’ve learned that you don’t move on from the grief or memories of your last dog but rather move forward and learn that your heart is big enough to love again.
If you should receive a cancer diagnosis for your pet, Dr. Angelo stated, “The No. 1 thing to remember after hearing that your pet has cancer is that we (your expert team) are here for the happiness and quality of life of the patient. The most important thing is them (the patient).”
There are so very many resources available to pet parents. To learn more about canine lymphoma or other canine cancers, visit www.wearethecure.org, the official site for the National Canine Cancer Foundation.
By Christy Punch