On May 30th, Flash was a normal, healthy, happy dog who barked and lunged and ran and scarfed down anything he could find to eat. Six weeks later, he was gone. I’m stunned by the speed with which everything transpired. Life can change on a dime, however, and I guess I forgot that. In an effort to make sense of everything, I started making notes about stuff. I was surprised to find that I did learn lots from this hideous experience.
(I want you to know that I’ve been writing this all week and making revisions as things changed. I don’t want you to think I came home from the vet composed enough to do this. It’s now Friday and I’ve been shaking ever since I woke up.)
I’m still capable of being shocked.
I didn’t know diddly squat about pancreatitis or hemangiosarcoma and now I know too much. I sure as heck didn’t know hemangiosarcoma could kill so quickly and in such a horrible way.
I was so blindsided by all of this that it was almost a Three Stooges comedy act. Or a spit take. What? What do you mean, my dog has a liver tumor and that it’s malignant? Huh?
I have selective realism. Or maybe that’s just Pollyanna Syndrome.
Before Flash’s surgery I told my vet that I wasn’t worried about the liver mass. Yep, I actually said that. In my mind, we would do what needed to be done, but Flash would make it. I never factored the mass being hemangiosarcoma into the equation. (See part about being shocked again.) I didn’t think about Flash dying of this, which is just kind of stupid.
Dogs don’t outlive us. If we want a pet that outlives us we should get a tortoise – they live to be 100. But I thought I had plenty of time with him. Flash was only 8 1/2 years old. After the Mast Cell Tumor in 2016, however, I never took one day with Flash for granted and I’m so glad I didn’t.
My vet is a genuinely nice guy.
I’ve always liked Dr. S., but he stepped up to help me in ways that went above and beyond the call of duty. I was blessed to have had him at my side through all this. He’d been Flash’s vet for seven years so I wasn’t surprised when he got emotional, too.
There are some bad vets out there.
If you don’t think you’ve received the right diagnosis for your pet, go to another vet. If something feels wrong, keep searching until something feels right.
One vet I saw in early June said, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you.” Evidently, she wanted me to take Flash and go home. Oh, never mind that he was in agony. I didn’t know diddly squat about pancreatitis at that moment, but I learned within a day or so. Even I knew that the two things I kept repeating to the vet were significant: 1.) he got into the garbage. 2.) he ate bacon grease. Hey, idiot #1 – You went to vet school. I didn’t. Figure it out.
The second vet said, “We could do lots of tests, but we probably wouldn’t find out what it was.” Hey, idiot #2 – How come the Emergency Pet Hospital knew what was wrong with Flash within ten minutes of examining him? And why the hell did the second vet give me 180 Tramadol pills (strong pain pills)? Why 180? Was that a “shut up, drug the dog, and go home.” Or, did the vet have an inkling of what was wrong and just didn’t want to handle it? I’ll never know.
My son is a lot more perceptive than I knew.
Some of the most wonderful insights about this situation came from John. My son has a very pragmatic take on life, but in this instance he was downright New Age. Plus, he came over to my house simply to give me hugs. He listened for nearly two hours on Sunday while I told him the whole story – with crying breaks. I needed to tell someone about all my fears and questions and he was a great listener.
Everyone wants to sell you something.
A great many websites or blogs are hawking something: herbal remedies that will cure your dog. Books you need to buy. Consultations you need to have. I must have read 2000 articles, medical and research papers, etc. on this disease. I got to the point I could figure out who was going to try to sell me something by the first sentence. Bottom line, this cancer sucks and nothing is going to cure it or put it into remission.
Hemangiosarcoma isn’t fair.
(See part about being shocked.) I thought, I really did, that Flash being asymptomatic when the liver tumor was found would make some difference. I thought we would get a head start on this sucker. Nope. As Tony Johnson, DVM, DACVECC wrote on the web:
Cancer is bad; hemangiosarcoma is worse.
There are many types of cancers, and they are as varied as people are. Some are pokey and slow-growing, unlikely to kill the host before they die of some other ailment – like prostatic cancer in humans – while others are voracious black storms, devouring the host and spreading to every available niche with frightening speed.
Hemangiosarcoma is of the latter variety.
Or, as one of the numerous vets I consulted in the past six weeks said: the minute you get that diagnosis, your dog is dead.
Flash was messing with my mind.
When I’m in a lot of pain, I withdraw. It’s just how I handle things. This past week I battened down the hatches, didn’t take calls, ignored my email, and never answered the door. I didn’t see anyone but Flash for the whole week. I guess I was saying goodbye in my way. Or maybe it was doggy hospice.
On Monday I questioned myself. I’d made the appointment with Flash’s vet for July 14th, but was that too fast? Hemangiosarcoma has an MST (Median Survival Time) from the date of the discovery of the tumor to death of between 19 days to 83 days. This week marked Flash’s 31-38th day. I thought I might have another month with Flash. Maybe two. (See part about Pollyanna Syndrome.)
Then Flash showed me that I was being way too optimistic.
Even though he ate fine last week, Flash decided that he was going to go without food. He would only eat if I hand fed him. By the way, it’s possible to hand feed yogurt. It’s messy, but you can do it. I don’t know how much chicken I cooked in the past month, but I don’t want to look at chicken for a very long time. Tuesday afternoon he suddenly decided that he was ravenously hungry. More chicken and yogurt, please. I also bought him some non fat flavored yogurt: blueberry and vanilla. It was a tossup which one he loved more. He wasn’t drinking, although he was urinating frequently. To counteract his sudden aversion to water, I gave him chicken broth. He loved that, too. Later in the week I gave him an occasional low fat cracker. (Everything had to be low fat so as to not aggravate his pancreas and give him any more pain. Although now I wonder if the pain he felt on June 1 wasn’t something more than pancreatitis. I’ll never know.)
Wednesday morning I thought Flash was dying. He had what looked like a partial seizure involving his head and one leg. Wednesday afternoon he was barking at a skateboarder. Yep, I knew I was being gaslighted.
He often slept on my feet, almost as if he needed that connection with me as much as I needed it. Then he’d follow me around the house – and especially into the kitchen. I fed him any time he wanted to eat – and he always wanted yogurt.
He had great moments when his eyes sparkled and he looked like he was smiling. He had really bad moments when he stood stiffed legged, head down, drooling and panting.
Even though he was still on pain pills Flash started panting a lot on Thursday. He developed the most gawdawful watery, foul smelling, yellow diarrhea – I don’t know if it was because of the liver cancer or the gallbladder removal.
Dr. S. was very sweet. He said that over the course of his career he’d seen a few pets and their owners with special bonds and that Flash and I were one of those. He’d always remember it.
The end, when it came, was peaceful. I kept petting Flash. I closed his eyes. I held onto his paw. I didn’t want to leave him, but he’d already left me.
I have always embraced change, but now?
My life has changed completely. Nothing I do will ever be the same, from the way I exercise to getting my coffee in the morning. Every single routine in my day will be different, because Flash was my Velcro dog, always at my side. For the past six weeks I’ve been hyper aware of him. Is he breathing right? Does he look okay? How are his gums? I imagine that I’ll go through some horrible loneliness until I adapt. I also imagine that I’ll hear him in the middle of the night or think I see him out of the corner of my eye. That’s what happened with my human losses.
LSU has a great program called Best Friend Gone. Their website states: Veterinarians and mental health professionals recognize and agree that there is a legitimate grief response to animal loss, which is very similar in nature and sometimes as significant as the grief response to human death.
In a lot of ways, Flash was more than my dog. He was my companion and, strangely enough, my bridge to the world. He pulled me, kicking and screaming, into situations where I had to interact with people. I could no longer live in my walled off enclave. I have no idea if I’ll retreat into my hermitage again. I might. I don’t know.
Just one more hole in my heart.
I read somewhere that the degree of pain you feel at a loss is commensurate with the love you felt. I don’t know if that’s true. I read something else – that the primitive brain sees grief as a physical wound. To our brains, we need to heal. It certainly feels that way.
One day I will remember Flash as he was, barking at the top of his lungs at the yard people or the UPS guy. Or listening to me intently as I carped about something. Or careening around the coffee table at full speed, sliding into the dining room, and heading for the gym, only to return with fluffy tail to stand in front of me, proud of this demonstration of his house herding ability. I’ll smile and shake my head at the memory. Right now I haven’t achieved that zen moment.
One night I went out to the back patio and sat in the heat. Flash was asleep on the kitchen floor with his head on a pillow I’d brought him. I’d been praying like mad. God, help me bear this. God, give me the strength to do this. God, help me learn from this. All of a sudden, the most surprising calm came over me. I remembered a lesson I’d learned many years earlier. Feel the pain. Internalize it. Absorb it. Become an amoeba that flows and folds around it. Encapsulate it. You will never escape it, so learn to live with it.
I have several holes in my heart – metaphorically speaking – that were burned there by acid. I will always feel that grief, that loss, but it’s become part of me. Flash’s loss will be one more hole. I never expected to feel this kind of pain again, but maybe it’s the price you pay for love and laughter.
One last thing I’ve always known
Without sorrow there is no joy. To paraphrase the Bible: there is a time for rain and a time for rainbows. This is my time for rain. And that’s okay. Flash deserves to be mourned.
My choice was to keep Flash with me forever, to have him be safe and healthy and filled with life. But I didn’t have a choice in this. I wasn’t in control. All that was left for me was to do everything in my power to help Flash.
I hope I did that.