Last updated on September 21, 2018
Marley sat down and a lump appeared. Marley stood up and it disappeared. Long time readers of this blog know that we believe in the ‘don’t wait, aspirate’ rule of thumb when it comes to lumps on dogs. At the very least, a veterinary visit is in order for further testing.
This seemingly innocuous lump turned out to be cancer, and a very aggressive, high grade form at that. How could this have happened? What caused it? And why is it attacking the otherwise spunky American Cocker Spaniel, Marley?
“Are you sitting down,” dog mom, Susan Greenberg, asked me recently.
“Yes, I am,” I replied.
“Marley is dying.”
Susan and Joel Greenberg love dogs, and their hearts beat in rhythm for Cocker Spaniels. Susan wants to help other dog parents with the hope that ‘something’ might prevent the same heartache and devastation they are now facing. This is Marley’s journey.
From Whence He Came
Marley was an owner surrender dog. He had been crated and locked outside as a form of punishment. After the Greenbergs adopted him from Animatch Dog Adoption in Canada, their vet noticed Marley’s teeth were very worn down. His anxiety manifested by chewing on the bars of his crate.
“Walking him was like being pulled by sled dogs,” Greenberg shared. “We took him for basic obedience, then advanced, and he passed with flying colors in September of 2014.”
Marley had a variety of health issues, but nothing extreme. He settled in nicely with his new family and adopted brother, eight-year-old Cocker Spaniel, Woody.
Cocker lovers who make their rounds on Instagram may recognize the dynamic duo modeling doggy bow ties and bandanas for a few different smaller companies.
Life was balanced, life was good. Lightning was about to strike.
Dog Mom Gut Feeling
“Marley was being Marley, and nothing was out of the ordinary,” his mom said. “This thing ate at me, though. I had a gnawing sick feeling inside.”
The devoted dog mom takes a lot of photos of her pups. Marley normally sits tall, but she noticed her regal boy hunching over in one particular photo. She ran her fingers over Marley, tried to palpate for anything out of the ordinary, but things seemed okay. Joel Greenberg, Susan’s husband, felt maybe it was the angle of the photo or because Marley was getting thin.
The couple was concerned about Marley’s weight and wondered if his thyroid may be out of balance. A thyroid test in early July after a slightly decreased weight was normal. The complete blood panel (CBC) performed August 24, 2018, at the request of the emergency veterinarian, was normal.
On August 8, Susan placed a snood over the dog’s ears to prepare for meal time, when she saw a bulge. When the dog stood, it was gone. When he sat, again it was palpable. Thinking it might be a fatty lipoma, Susan wanted a vet to see this. Since her last Cocker, Puddles, succumbed to hemangiosarcoma, her heart was hopeful but understandably nervous. She made an appointment for when her vet returned from vacation, August 27th. She says that if it the mass was visible or felt while standing or laying down, the would not have waited to see the vet. As it turns out, they could not wait any longer, so they went to the emergency vet three days later.
“Once you have a dog touched by cancer, it sits in the back of your mind,” she shared.
At the animal hospital, Marley was seen for a right flank mass diagnosed four weeks earlier, but which had sudden growth recently. The vet was able to palpate a small mass in the right lumbar area near the dog’s 13th rib. They could not define the mass but suspected a possible lipoma, or a fatty non-benign mass that affects many dogs.
The couple was told a CT scan could be performed, but they are expensive and though not necessarily needed, they could proceed forward with it. The couple was about to agree, but Susan noticed her husband seemed uncomfortable about that decision. The only way they could stop worrying was to go ahead with the scan.
“I got the call mid-afternoon from the surgeon to tell me Marley had cancer, that it had metastasized, and it was in his lungs,” the devastated dog mom shared. “He was completely shocked by the results and was grateful that Joel and I insisted on the CT Scan.”
More specifically, Marley’s CT scan of his chest and abdomen showed:
- Numerous pulmonary nodules, most consistent with pulmonary metastatic neoplasia.
- Soft tissue mass with primary concern for neoplasia, such as soft tissue sarcoma. The report says, “This mass appears to deflect into the abdomen rather than directly extending into it, although focal extension cannot be entirely excluded.”
A definitive diagnosis could be obtained through a biopsy/aspiration of the mass, but the Greenbergs were told Marley’s life span with treatment would not hopeful.
Dr. Julius Liptak, small animal surgeon and ACVS Founding Fellow in Surgical Oncology, wrote to the Greenbergs on Friday, August 29, 2018:
I am so sorry to be the bearer of such unexpected and bad news. As you can see from the CT report, Marley has a tumor affecting the subcutaneous tissues of his right body wall and this tumor has spread (or metastasized) to his lungs. As you know from our discussions this morning and subsequent phone call, I would not have ever imagined this possibility based on my physical exam of Marley this morning.
Unfortunately, we are now in a palliative setting for Marley and I would not recommend surgery for Marley because of his lung metastasis. His lung metastasis will be the cause of his passing. The clinical signs associated with lung metastasis can vary from systemic signs (lethargy, decreased appetite, weight loss [which you are already seeing], and decreased activity levels) to signs associated with his lungs (labored breathing, increased respiratory rate, and coughing [with or without blood]). Palliative management options include lots of TLC (which I know you’ll lather on Marley!), pain killing drugs and symptomatic treatment when he starts to show clinical signs associated with his metastatic lung tumor, and chemotherapy.
There are various types of chemotherapy ranging from full-course cytotoxic chemotherapy to metronomic, anti-blood vessel growth chemotherapy. These vary in their potential for side-effects, but may reduce the growth rate of his metastatic lesions and minimize the progression of further lesions in the future. I would recommend a consult with our medical oncologist to discuss the options for Marley and what this would mean for you and Marley if you chose to proceed with some form of chemotherapy.
Life Shattering Decisions
Due to the high grade and very aggressive nature of this cancer, the chemotherapy pill was not an option, since it would take months to start working. Marley is believed to have two weeks to one month to live, but that he could pass at any time. The couple was given a list of symptoms for which to be aware, and they decided to continue allowing him to live the best life possible without treatment.
They did seek a holistic veterinarian’s advice, but this path only lead to more upset and heartbreak.
Helping Other Dog Parents
In her own words, here’s Susan’s advice to other dog parents:
Marley is receiving no treatment at the moment or medical care except getting lots of TLC by us.
I want other dog parents to please be observant of your dog on how he or she looks, behaves and if you see anything new especially a lump or what looks like slight swelling, please take your dog to the vet. Have the lump investigated. Do not assume it’s nothing. Have the lump analyzed. The only way you will know for sure is if you run tests, aspirate, ultrasound, CT scan, x-ray, etc. Don’t stop testing until you know for sure what it is. Cancer is tricky sometimes and doesn’t always follow the norm, as in Marley’s case. His cancer fooled one of the very few oncologic surgeons in Canada.
Nothing different could have been done to prevent this. I was told this cancer probably started around the time or shortly before I saw that slight bump or hump on Marley’s back/ side. Even when I felt it for the first time on or around August 8th and brought him, requested a CT scan, and if Dr. Liptak operated on him to take out the mass, the cancer still would have spread. Chemo would not have been able to start for two weeks after surgery and the cancer would be in his lungs already. This is a very nasty cancer.
If we didn’t do these things, Marley would have passed away without a diagnosis. We would wonder for the rest of our lives what happened, what did we miss? Now, we know.
Marley is doing well. He is behaving like Marley. He’s eating normally, doing his business outside like normal, running around chasing squirrels, playing with his toys, and his tail wags nonstop. To look at him, you would never know he’s a very sick boy who is dying.
You cannot tell what a lump is by looking at it nor by palpating it. Even the most qualified specialist can speculate, but there is no 100 percent certainty without further testing.
Some of the most common canine cancers include:
- Mast cell tumors
- Brain tumors
- Bladder cancer
- Mammary carcinoma
- Malignant histiocystosis
- Squamous cell carcinomas
- Mouth and nasal cancer
- Testicular cancer
If you have a dog who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, there are many resources available. According to the Drake Center, canine cancer is the leading cause of death for dogs 10 years of age and older. However, half of all cancer in dogs is treatable if it is arrested in its early stages.
Helpful Links and Financial Assistance
The Veterinary Cancer Society (VCS) is an online resource with information on clinical trials in the field of veterinary oncology. The listing includes a breakdown by university veterinary schools and other clinical trials.
Fetch A Cure provides a variety of resources from cancer terms to nutrition, financial resources, and more. According to their research, approximately one-third of all tumors in dogs are skin tumors, and up to twenty percent of those are mast cell tumors. The most common location to find mast cell tumors is the skin, followed by the spleen, liver, and bone marrow. Approximately half of all skin tumors are found on the body, another forty percent on the limbs (most frequently the hind limbs), and the remainder on the head or neck. Approximately eleven percent occur in more than one location.
Whole Dog Journal reports that one in four dogs gets cancer, and half of all dogs over the age of 10 will die from it. That is startling, but a very harrowing and all-too-real part of being a pet parent.
The Morris Animal Foundation has been in existence for over 70 years, helping animals with their health. According to their website, at any given time, they have over 200 studies underway to address important health challenges, including the largest cancer-focused study on dogs.
Whole Dog Journal also outlines a very intense article on the various cancer treatments for dogs. From conventional to holistic, cancer treatment and it’s prevention, run the gamut.
Financially, cancer treatment can be expensive.
About 1.4 million pets in the U.S. and Canada were covered by a plan at the end of 2014, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, a trade group. Are you one of them? This dog mom has been an advocate for reputable pet health insurance for years. If you are not among the millions of pet health policy holders, then what? Here are some solutions to helping you afford your dog’s medical bill.
It Can Affect Any Dog
Any dog, any age, any breed, any lineage, any mutt can be affected by canine cancer. Here are a few links to various pet blogs featuring dogs who have faced cancer, present company included.
Not all cancer diagnoses are as grim as Marley’s, which is why dog parents must be diligent in what is ‘normal’ in their dog. When abnormal happens, you will know.
We stress the importance of 10 touches to save your dog’s life. We perform these touches regularly on our dog, and we know many dog parents whose dogs’ lives have been saved because of these touches.
Even through their immense angst, the Greenbergs are opening their hearts to help other dogs. The couple adopted Marley from Animatch Dog Adoption several years ago. Animatch has a yearly calendar fundraiser, and the 2019 cover dogs are Marley and his brother-from-another-mother, Woody. Send an email to email@example.com and let her know you want to purchase one. Let her know where you live and she will provide you the price. It is $10 Canadian dollars each.
Waffles’ Journey With Lymphoma
Fidose of Reality Pawer Woman and fellow Cocker Spaniel mom/rescuer/ and friend, Naomi Lukaszewski of California, has a dog who was diagnosed with Stage 1A lymphoma six months ago as of this writing. Of note, Naomi has fostered almost 100 Cocker Spaniels, so she knows a thing or two about dogs and illness.
“She showed no signs of being ill,” she says.
Each week in our Club Cocker Facebook group, we do a “Touch Me Tuesday,” where everyone touches their dog to check for abnormalities. On this particular Tuesday, Naomi felt a large lump her the dog’s jaw. Knowing it was not there the night before, she acted.
A veterinarian made the diagnosis. Naomi had a dog with lymphoma before, and she knew the conventional treatment is chemo or prednisone.
“Once you choose prednisone, you cannot do chemo. The prognosis with chemo is 6-12 months including the 6 months of chemo. Prognosis on just prednisone is 2-4 months. The prognosis with no treatment is 1-3 months, she shared.”
Going the Holistic Route
Having had two friends who recently went through chemo and finding out that the main difference between chemo for human versus dogs was that Waffles would not lose her hair, Naomi opted for prednisone to give Waffles the best quality of life she could have. She also decided to seek advice from a holistic vet, Dr. Katie Kanga of Integrative Veterinary Care.
Dr. Kangas provided her a list of supplements to support Waffles’ immune system and every visit includes acupuncture. This summer, they also did six weeks of ozone treatments. She also discovered that vitamin D is a common deficiency in dogs with cancer. Not all dogs with vitamin D deficiency will get cancer, but dogs with cancer generally have a vitamin D deficiency. Dog parents, be warned: you should not immediately start supplementing with vitamin D. There is a blood test for this, and if your regular vet does not perform it, then a qualified holistic vet can. Read more about dogs at risk from vitamin D deficiency.
Waffles is in her seventh month of lymphoma, is eating well, and surprising her conventional veterinarian with her vitality.
“Her lymph nodes in her neck are like golf balls and she has horrible gingivitis (which really bugs me because I was so careful to brush her teeth daily),” Naomi told us. “While she has energy, she does not have stamina.”
She has lost muscle tone, her hair stopped growing, but none of her lymph nodes are swollen. Prior to getting into holistic treatment, Naomi felt it meant treatments to make her dying easier. She has since come to realize that her experience with holistic medicine has been giving her treatment to keep her healthy and extend Waffles’ life.
Naomi muses, “She still is sassy enough to ignore me when I tell her to stop barking.”
She cautions, however, that every dog is different and that you should always consult with a vet (conventional or holistic) before starting any type of medical treatment for your dog.
Prevention of Dog Cancer
No one has a crystal ball, and sometimes even the healthiest people and dogs will be diagnosed with cancer. Every dog is different, just like people. You can’t determine how your dog will respond to chemo or radiation or any other number of treatments, curative or palliative in intent, until you are deep into the throes of cancer. You can, however, increase the likelihood your dog won’t be affected by cancer with some simple preventative measures.
Here are our 7 ways to prevent cancer in dogs.
We are advocates and believers in preventative medicine. From what your dog eats to what you put on his skin, his overall emotional well-being and how much exercise – both mentally and physically – he gets, we would rather spend more on keeping illness away than spending a ton on trying to solve a huge health crisis.
Dealing With Canine Cancer
Never let anyone tell you what is best for you and your family. Marley is one of six million dogs affected by cancer every year. It is evil, unforgiving, ruthless, and the best we can do for our beloved dogs is give them our best: commit to good health, diet, exercise,
Life is short, and life is unexpected. Make no apologies for living life with dogs and how you treat them. If you want to ride a boat and eat ice cream together, go for it. If you are a hiker and love to explore new territories, don’t wait. Make a do it now list and don’t want for that bucket list.
We are all with you on your journey with Marley and Waffles and every dog affected by canine cancer. It’s not fair, we can’t explain it, and we hold you and your family in our hearts and prayers.
For Further Dog Cancer Reading
In our many years of blogging, we’ve encountered countless numbers of pet bloggers, presently company included, whose dogs have been affected by canine cancer. Here are a few of their journeys for further reading (the links will take you right to their pages dedicated to canine cancer):
Special thanks to Susan and Joel Greenberg and Naomi Lukaszewski for sharing their stories and to Dr. Julius Liptak, VCA Canada, Alta Vista Animal Hospital, for your expertise. Always check with your dog’s veterinarians and healthcare team before making any changes, deletions, or additions, to your dog’s diet and/or medicinal supplements. We cannot guarantee anything and no two dogs are alike.