By Marty Grabijas
Joker, our 8-year-old Lab, was dropping weight. It didn’t concern me at the time, as we were having high-output days chasing trout and ptarmigan in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. But when he started having a voracious thirst, a vet visit seemed in order.
Photographs by Ed Carroll
The vet took Joker in back for lab work. The results were not good: canine lymphoma. I was told that Joker had 30 to 60 days, maybe a bit longer with prednisone, but that he wouldn’t be with us for Christmas. At that moment it would have been easier if I had been diagnosed with lymphoma. I blamed myself. There must have been something I had missed or could have done better, although the pinpoint cause of lymphoma is currently unknown.
Of all the dogs that I have had, Joker was the most special. He came to us when he was just more than a year old. Joker was the personal dog of a professional trainer and had not been responding to training. I discovered that the softer you were with him, the more he gave. I promised that I always would protect and take care of him.
Our local vet did say that there was a chance. One of the best canine oncologists in the country was at the VCA Medical Hospital, 3½ hours away in a fast car. That afternoon, after my wife and I had cried for hours, I booked an appointment. A few days later we woke at daybreak for the drive.
Doctor Schrempp outlined the options for us. With aggressive chemotherapy, remission was likely, with approximately 60 to 90 percent of cases experiencing a survival time of six to 12 months. In 20 to 25 percent of cases dogs live two years or longer after initial treatment. However, a cure wasn’t likely. The Madison protocol and the drugs for canines are the same as those that are applied to humans. With canines, however, the last few moves that make this protocol so effective in humans have not been unlocked. The best that we would be able to do was buy time. We proceeded without hesitation.
Joker’s response to chemo was immediate. It was like he was three years old again. We were optimistic. We were going to beat this. His demeanor was that he was all in every day, all the time. In some ways it seemed like he knew that every day was precious and irreplaceable.
For the first few months Joker was crushing it, and we took every opportunity to get him on birds. He was putting on muscle, his bloodwork was excellent and we were optimistic. Then his drive began to slip. His calcium levels and other markers were off. He developed immunity to the most aggressive drug in the protocol: doxorubicin. We made an emergency trip to Dr. Schrempp, where “rescue protocols”—more aggressive drugs—were administered. Joker did not respond as hoped.
The treatment of a canine family member with cancer is an incredibly nuanced discussion, and for every type of cancer and every family the conversation is different. According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, lymphoma is one of the most common forms of cancer in canines, and it is also one of the most treatable. Conversely, some forms of cancer are extremely aggressive and leave us with only days or weeks to enjoy each other’s company.
Joker left us on December 29. His breathing was labored, he wouldn’t eat and he barely could get up. We took him for his last vet visit. When we pulled up to the vet’s office, instead of bounding out of the car like he always did, he just sat and looked at us. It was like he knew and wanted to savor just one more moment with us. It is a memory that will haunt me forever.
Since then Joker’s great-nephew has come to live with us. Jester is, in many ways, the opposite of Joker. He hasn’t filled the hole that Joker left, but he does take up a huge amount of time and brings the promises for the future that every pup does.
My takeaway from this experience is that: If in doubt, see your vet. Cancer can be difficult to spot and often has gained a strong foothold by the time it is symptomatic. According to Dr. Barrowclough, who interned under Dr. Schrempp and is our current veterinarian, “Cancer moves through canines extremely quickly, which is why it is important that your dog have annual checkups and blood work. This practice also helps your veterinarian identify a host of possible abnormalities.”
Canines compress so much living into a short time. The incredible responsibility one takes on when bringing a canine into the home is to ensure that the dog gets the most out of every day. Or as one person said: A dog is only one part of our life, but we are the entirety of theirs.