The diagnosis came as no surprise, nor did the timing. Golden retrievers are prone to cancer; some studies suggest six out of ten will develop malignancies. I’d lost little Tuppence the Wonderbitch to cancer at the age of ten. Barley came from the same genetics, and males typically live a couple years less than females. Those who have observed me grooming my dogs note that in the process I conduct a cursory physical exam of eyes, ears, nose and mouth; checking for firmness or tenderness of the belly; carefully palpating lymph nodes.
In January, right around his eighth birthday, I noticed his gums were pale, his belly firm but not hard. A day later I noticed subtle changes in his demeanor. His affect was flat, his exuberance at meal time diminished. Never one to decline a treat, Barley would cheerfully supplement his diet with anything he could get his teeth on: table scraps, rodents, vegetables right out of the garden, wild blackberries at the edge of our meadow, and unattended meals left on kitchen counters. But now, as we cuddled by the woodstove while a fierce winter storm lashed the house with sub-zero gusts, he turned away from treats. And then the polyuria/polydipsia started: drinking and peeing very often.
I made a vet appointment for the following day.
Years ago we had a phenomenal veterinarian in Steve Woodard, DVM. He had no fancy equipment in his small office, just a vintage x-ray machine and an old microscope, but his skills as a diagnostician were such that on those few times when he referred us to a specialist, his provisional diagnosis was spot on. We lost Steve, ironically, to cancer, and the entire county mourned his passing.
His practice was passed on to Emily Crawford, DVM. Had I known nothing at all about her skills, the fact that Steve chose her to care for his clients would have been enough. But she is an exceptional vet in her own right, with the bonus of a background in oncology and remarkable competence in the “Snap out of it, man! Your dog needs you to be positive!” department.
Barley’s symptoms fit no classic pattern. The pale gums came and went. Some days his belly was firm and others it was soft and supple. There were no enlarged lymph nodes that we could palpate. Heart and lungs normal. His urine was dilute but unremarkable. The only truly abnormal results were his platelet count was low, and his serum calcium was dangerously high. I was thinking cancer. Emily might have been thinking that, but she also wanted to rule out an adrenal mass.
We were sent to see Dr Amy Cordner, an internist at the Burlington Emergency Vet Service clinic in nearby Burlington. A full day of tests, an ultrasound that discovered a single enlarged lymph node deep in his abdomen (too deep to palpate), and a needle biopsy of that node gave us a diagnosis of lymphoma. The only way to determine what type of lymphoma – the aggressive T-cell variant that had taken Tadcaster from me, or the much less aggressive and more treatable B-cell variety – was to perform surgery to remove the entire node and send it out for analysis.
I simply could not do that to Barley. One of the cruelest facts of life is that we and our canine family members have such disparate life expectancies. But a dog has no notion of mortality. A dog is simply here, and loved, or not. If Barley had cancer, he would at least enjoy the time he had left with me. I would not have his last few months filled with the pain associated with abdominal surgery. So I returned to Dr Emily, had a long talk with her about my philosophy of life. Together we decided to give Barley one full round of chemo. If he tolerated it well we would treat him as if he had the B-cell variant. If his body responded we would know we were right.
Human survivors of chemotherapy will be familiar with the drugs used in the CHOP protocol: vincristine (injectable), cyclophosphamide (oral), doxorubicin (intravenous), and prednisone (oral) administered in turns, with their impact on white blood cell production monitored weekly. Just as in humans, every patient handles chemo differently. Emily charted Barley’s bloodwork to enable her to see trends that would allow her to adjust the dosage or timing as needed.
Barley went into full remission very quickly, tolerating the drugs with minimal and very short-lived side effects. Shortly before the new year we had bought a house in a much more rural, scenic part of Vermont. Between the purchase price and the cost of getting it ready to live in, we were stretched very thin. But as my wonderful dog curled up to me each night, his loving personality telling me that life was still very much a good thing, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind.
15 May 2015: Barley continues to do very well. Full remission, though every little cut or incipient hot spot gives me pause. He has always had an issue with seasonal allergies, and to stay on top of that I’ve been washing his underside from crotch to ruff with a warm washcloth every night. He loves it, and the moment he hears the water running in the tub he appears at my side, standing bowlegged, waiting for his nether regions to be wiped down. The weather was perfect today, so we took a spin around town.
6 June 2015: D-Day Bloodwork came back perfectly normal as we enter the last full round of chemo. I know the drugs have adverse and cumulative effects, but they brought him back to his normal playful self when I thought I was about to lose him. We caught it early and treated it immediately, but I know once the chemo stops my mind is apt to leap to conclusions every time Barley has an off day. I know I will eventually lose him.
But not just yet!
I cherish this dog. My mornings start with the thumping sound of his tail whacking the floor and the underside of the bed the moment he hears me stretch. At first sight he rolls over and reaches out to me with his large paws, vocalizing his joy at waking up with me. We snuggle, one paw thrown over my neck and his muzzle pressed against my cheek while he makes happy grunting sounds.
Not just yet…
A Break from Chemo: Overnighter to Lake Placid
After four months of chemotherapy, with Barley in full remission and tolerating the drugs well, I decided we needed time off for good behavior. A trip was called for. Not a long one, as I didn’t want to be far from home if he ran into medical issues. And I was reluctant to camp for fear of Barley acquiring some loathsome tick-borne disease with his immune system not functioning at peak. As luck would have it, Backroads Magazine was sponsoring a multiple day ride that would spend a night in Lake Placid NY, less than a hundred miles to the west. Equally fortuitous, Tom and Kelly, our friends in Saranac Lake, wanted to see us again and offered to put us up for the night.
I took a Friday afternoon off and we set out for the shore of Lake Champlain, catching the ferry from Charlotte VT to Essex NY. I let Barley out of the sidecar the moment all vehicles were parked, and he was immediately surrounded by admirers. It was good to see him catch up on all the socialization he’d missed since his illness began!
Soon after the ferry docked on the New York side we were scooting across verdant farmland toward the humid Adirondacks to the west. It had been several months since we had enjoyed more than a short ride together, and Barley quickly settled in, his nose working the scents, his eyes studying the terrain ahead of us.
There was just a short stretch of road construction in Keene NY just past the ADK Cafe (where we simply MUST stop someday!). We passed through the town of Lake Placid, stopping briefly on the far side to share an ice cream, then pressed north on 86, west on 186, and south on 30 to Tom and Kelly’s home on the shore of Green Pond.
Tom and Kelly had adopted one of our rescue goldens years ago, and we had remained friends ever since. CJ, their adopted golden retriever, is now twelve and quite healthy for a dog of his age. He was overly curious about Barley, delighted to have a new playmate, but was too aggressive about it for Barley. After ignoring several clear warning signs, CJ tried to mount Barley and received several bites for his efforts. No real harm done, and the lesson was learned. By morning the two dogs would be playing together.
We caught up on events since our last meeting, and as the evening wore on Barley became increasingly vocal. He vocalizes with people he feels comfortable with, and it was clear that he was extremely comfortable with Kelly. She would fuss over him and he’d talk back with enthusiasm, telling her all about his life of adventures! We went for a brief walk, catching a glimpse of a loon on her nest before hordes of bloodthirsty mosquitoes drove us back inside.
We turned in, my dog and I, falling asleep to the haunting sound of loons on the lake. We awoke at 4am, spending the next hour and a half cuddling quietly lest we disturb our hosts. At half past five CJ was wimpering to be let out for a bio-break, so we rose and went outside. The air was cool and clean…until the mosquitoes found us and drove us all back inside! Barley immediately ran upstairs where I could hear him telling Tom and Kelly all about something he had found particularly exciting! Kelly’s laugh told me she was done sleeping. Showers, more talk over cups of steaming coffee, and then it was time to head back to Lake Placid for breakfast with Brian and Shira, editors of Backroads magazine. We had met briefly years before at the Missouri rally. Shira had been a fan of Barley’s ever since.
At that hour there was plenty of parking in the town of Lake Placid. I found a spot right in front of Generations, the restaurant where most of the Backroads tour riders were having breakfast. We were met by Shira, who led the way back to Brian. Barley lay on the outdoor deck next to my chair and behaved perfectly. I’d thought only Brian and Shira were aware of Barley’s illness, but as several motorcyclists came by to introduce themselves and share quiet moments with my dog, it was clear that most knew of his battle with cancer and wanted to meet my feisty fighter. It was good for him, a gift for both of us, and watching him interact with people it was clear to me that socialization was as much a part of his treatment plan as the chemo agents he takes every week.
As I said my goodbyes and quietly exited the restaurant, I learned that one does not simply slip away unobtrusively with a dog like Barley. I donned my gear and secured Barley in his sidecar, then turned around and found no fewer than twenty people holding cameras or smart phones to capture images of him! They were the Pupperazzi!
Return to Montana!
Just a few short months ago participating in this year’s BMW rally was the furthest thing from my mind. My dog, my incredible dog, was in the opening round of his fight against lymphoma. Devastated, I opted for a trial round of chemo to see if he could handle it without significant impacts on his quality of life. To my surprise and delight, he handled the drugs with the same fighting spirit with which he faced off against bear and buffalo. He quickly went into remission and returned to his normal, playful, spirited self.
I resolved to keep him safe at home, to limit his exposure to potential harm, to fuss over him so he knew how much he was loved. But he already knew that, and as time went on he began to chafe at the restrictions to his activity. As the snow melted he dug for mice with renewed fury. He bagged the enormous woodchuck that had ruined the Wife’s garden last year. If I was in the shop working on one of the bikes he would jump into the sidecar and stare at me expectantly. The message was clear. He might not have as much time left as we both hoped for, but he was determined to spend that time living.
Billings, Montana is only 2300 miles away (by a fairly direct route as motorcyclists go). That’s less than half the distance we traveled on our circuitous route to the rally in Salem, Oregon. Well within range, the destination offers two bonuses. 1) It will let us follow a route we are already familiar with. I know the roads, the campgrounds and hotels, where to find good food, and have a list of trusted veterinarians just in case. 2) It will take us past two places I’ve wanted to return to someday: Badlands National Park and Beartooth Pass.
There is also the social aspect of seeing old friends and meeting new. Last month’s overnight trip to Lake Placid showed me how much Barley missed people. He really is a social butterfly, and denying him that important outlet took a toll. I won’t make that mistake again.
Our tentative route:
- Fairly high speed dash across the Midwest and Great Plains
- Turn north in western Nebraska into the southern Black Hills
- Hwy 16 west, then up to Buffalo, then on to Ten Sleep
- North, then northeast on 14 to ALT 14 in the Big Horns
- A visit to Medicine Wheel then to Cody before going up and over Beartooth PassDetail of our last two days from northwest Nebraska up thru SD, WY and into MT
17 July 2015: His bloodwork one week after finishing his course of chemo was PERFECT! After a long discussion with Dr Emily I decided to abandon the thought of riding all the way; recent storms have left high humidity and plenty of biting bugs in their wake. Barley will ride in air conditioned comfort as far as Nebraska, and from there we’ll ride. Besides, the ability to travel at night will get us there faster, leaving more time to ride the Black Hills, Big Horns, and Beartooth!
All packed up and ready to go!