That time my dog got cancer again

This is the first picture I ever took of Brinkley, on the day he came home with me.

This is the first picture I ever took of Brinkley, on the day he came home with me.

Almost 2 years ago, my beloved (then) 6-year-old dog Brinkley got cancer. They found a mast cell tumor on his toe which then moved to his lymph node. After a toe amputation, an incredibly invasive surgery that removed the cancerous lymph node, and about 6 months of chemotherapy treatments his cancer was deemed “in remission.” Wee Connor was about 2 months old when we finally finished trucking our dog 30 minutes out to a suburb of Charlotte every other week, and I couldn’t believe he had beaten the year odds the vets had given him.

Life eventually returned back to normal, or as normal as life with a new baby in the house ever got, which of course isn’t really normal at all. The day-to-day became more and more of what we thought about, and in that we forgot to appreciate Brinks as much as we should. I got angry when he barked and woke Wee Connor up from his naps every time the buzzer in our apartment buzzed. I got angry when he growled at Connor when Connor stepped on his tail or did something inconspicuous. I got angry when he got into the trash. We didn’t take him for as many walks as we should have because, you guys, nap schedules are hard and so is taking care of children in general.

This past Sunday Brinkley got a bout of diarrhea that had some blood mixed into it. I called the emergency vet, and took him in, grumbling something inane about how “this would be a total waste of time and money,” and, “I’m sure he’s fine, but might as well be sure.” As the vet checked him out, I went into my spiel about his past history with cancer and the vet froze in her tracks. “What kind of cancer did he have?” she asked. “When was this again? And everything was fine again, you said? When you came in here a few months ago, he ended up being fine again, right?”

Time started slowing. My mind was racing. Had he been acting normally? He chased us around while I pushed Connor in his wagon this weekend, right? Definitely. He had given away my secret position to Connor while playing hide and seek this morning, the traitor that he is.

IMG_20160511_174130“…so the thing is that every single lymph node is swollen,” the vet said, as I popped back into awareness in this suddenly freezing cold room with the hard tile floors. I understood but wanted nothing more than to not understand what was coming next. “With his history,” she kept going, getting more uncomfortable, “this just…it’s just…my primary concern here is cancer.” They ran a full panel of blood work while I sat in the waiting room. The vet came back explaining the results of off-the-chart lymphocytes in his blood. “You need to get an appointment with oncology, and it has to be this week,” she told me. “Here’s the number for their direct line. Call at 8am tomorrow morning when they open to get an appointment.” She sighed and asked if I understood everything and finished with, “When I heard his symptoms, I never expected to be giving you this news. I am so sorry.”

We made the appointment and Friday was the earliest we could come in. I took Brinkley in Wednesday to the internal medicine specialist so he could order yet another panel of tests, aspirations, and give another opinion. Thursday the news came back with the results we had been dreading: lymphoma. It’s everywhere, and eating away at his bone marrow and seeping into his blood. The internal medicine vet urged me to keep the appointment with the oncologist so she could really point me in the direction of “options.”

Our options can only be described as grim.

With treatment, Brinkley’s prognosis is about a year. Treatment involves weekly visits to get chemotherapy for 8 weeks, then 16 weeks of going every other week, or about 6 months of treatment. To say this process isn’t cheap is kind of like saying Chicago has a wee bit of a history of crooked politicians. Luckily, dogs (typically) don’t experience the same side effects of chemotherapy as humans, so the year we have would actually be a good year together. Without treatment, he has one – maybe two – months left. This type of cancer has about a 100% relapse rate, so about a year is the best we can hope for before the cancer finally comes back and treatment is no longer effective.

IMG_20160214_101059For anyone who has been with us on this journey for a while, Brinkley is only 8 years old and now has had two separate and (they assured me) distinctly unrelated types of cancer. I was told statistically this is almost an impossibility. The fact that Brinkley has essentially won the cancer Powerball doesn’t make it better.

Chris and I talked it over the weekend and decided to go for the treatments. We simply aren’t ready to face Brinkley’s mortality, and knowing we can have a year with him that’s pain-free and happy, well, it’s worth the price we can pay for that.

Brinkley is a sweet, semi-neurotic soul, which makes it all the more difficult to stare down the year ahead because I, too, think of myself as a sweet, semi-neurotic soul. He embodies so many of my own qualities it’s sometimes hard to remember that he is actually a dog. After I started down the path of getting The News (capital ‘T’, capital ‘N’) I cried for about a week straight. After that was over I made up my mind to not only appreciate Brinks more, but to give him what I now call, “Brinkley’s Big Year” (which of course comes with the requisite hashtag #BrinkleysBigYear).

Brinkley’s Big Year is a celebration of all that is dog, all that is family, and all that is life.

IMG_20160519_110807We will be doing all the things I want him to experience during this final year we have together. We will be grateful for his gentle soul and forgiving of his faults, even if one of those faults is digging through the trash can, which is, admittedly, still infuriating. We will take him to the dog beach. We will give him steak dinners. We will do everything we can think of to fill Brinkley’s bucket list because, frankly, he deserves it. Finally, we will document this year to show Connor that while he won’t remember Brinkley as he gets older, Connor’s name means “lover of hounds,” and Brinkley is, without a doubt, a hound worth loving.

I don’t know what kind of state I’ll find myself in at the end of this year, but I do hope that when I do have to say goodbye I’ll know Brinkley’s last memories are plentiful he’ll be happy enough to hold onto until we meet again. Until that moment, though, we have a Big Year (capital ‘B’, capital ‘Y’) to plan, a Chicago summer in which to have it, and have it we shall.

Animals aren’t just practice for having kids, they ARE kids.

Chris has started calling him our "little sunflower." Even sick, he's adorable.

Chris has started calling him our “little sunflower.” Even sick, this dog is gosh darn adorable.

If you have read my posts before, you probably know one thing about me: I love my fur babies animals. I have a dog named Brinkley (who has a certain affinity for a certain giraffe baby toy) and a cat named Madison, whom my husband has re-named Miss Madison because she “should be fancy.” They are both rescue animals; I got Madison in July of 2007 and Brinkley in December of the same year – so I have had them for almost 7 years each.

We joke they are my fur babies, but really, truly, they are. The terminology that my husband used to shift my outlook on having kids was to start calling babies “human puppies.” It worked, obviously.

A lot of people have told me that having animals is “good practice” for when you have kids, but something always struck me a little odd about that. These animals are my kids. One time when we were moving someone asked me if I was going to take them with me and I indignantly asked them back, “I don’t know, did you take your children with you when you moved?” The rest of the encounter in line at the grocery store with that person was really awkward.

This is why my world shattered when we got the news last week that my dog, who is only about 7 years old, has cancer.

A few months ago we found a bump on Brinkley’s toe. We had it looked at by the vet, they aspirated it (which, to my understanding, means they stuck a needle in and tested some of the cells from it), and then told us that it was benign and nothing to worry about, but if it got bigger or anything that we should bring him in. Last week, we decided to bring him in again because we thought it was indeed getting bigger. They gave us the option to try and take the mass out, which I agreed to. Midway through surgery I got a call that the mass has grown very large and into the toe, and the only thing they could do was to take the entire toe. Luckily it was a non weight-bearing toe, so walking and recovery would actually be fairly straightforward.

After the surgery, the doctor called me again with the news. It turns out when they looked at the growth it was cancerous, and considering where it was they had to take a considerable margin out just to make sure they could get all of the cancerous cells out. However, they needed to send everything to the pathologist for a report in order to see what the chances of metastasis (spreading) were. Last night we got the news that while the surgery was successful and all margins were cleared (meaning they were able to get all the cancerous cells from the toe) the location and type of growth apparently has a high chance of metastasis, and our next steps will be to go to a veterinary oncologist for more tests and, probably, chemotherapy.

That’s where we are right now.

head explosionAnd clearly, because life works that way, to make the timing extra special I’m leaving for Europe for a week starting Saturday, which means that the initial oncology appointment will need to be handled by Chris. I already despise and distrust this new vet based on the fact that when I asked to be put on a waiting list for cancellations for today and tomorrow (the last two days I am here) they replied with, “Just so you know, it’s really not likely at all” while LAUGHING. THEY LAUGHED. THEY ACTUALLY LAUGHED AT ME WHILE I WAS SCHEDULING MY DOG FOR CHEMOTHERAPY. So leaving this appointment in the hands of anyone else makes me want to throw a brick. Seriously, though, they laughed. How could a vet’s office specializing in oncology actually have the nerve to laugh at their new patients? I held it together to not blow my lid at her for fear of having “crazy bitch mom” scribbled at the top of Brinkley’s chart forever, considering they are the only veterinary oncology game in town. But it was a really close call.

It’s possible Brinkley could start treatments as soon as next week, which means that not only will I not be there to give Brinkley a million extra kisses and hugs and cuddles, but I won’t be there to talk to the vet and ask all my million neurotic questions. While I of course trust Chris to sustain lifeforms in my absence (that’s the point of choosing someone to procreate with, right?), it still hurts my soul that I won’t be there myself. What if Chris only asks 999,999 neurotic questions and not the millionth? What’s the point of having quit my job if I can’t be the one to do this sort of stuff? What if Chris decides he has to hurry back to work and then only asks 500,000 neurotic questions? Will he remember to call back with the remaining 500,000? The potential for a worry spiral is endless.

I know I’m describing the sensation of being a mom all the time, or at least when something happens, but my point still stands. I love this damn dog to the end of time, and will do anything for him, just how I know I’ll feel if something happens to Wee Connor after his arrival.

brinks with the playmat

I mean, COME ON. This is just too freaking cute.

Pets aren’t practice for kids. They are kids. If you do happen to have room in your thoughts or prayers for us, we would appreciate it. We know that Brinkley will be fine, but figuring out how that fine is going to be achieved is what we’re up against now. We shall prevail!