Despite celebrating my birthday this week, a dark cloud was hanging overhead.
Earlier in the week, I felt a lump on Monty’s chest. He’s a ten year old golden retriever, so we’re always feeling him over because retrievers seem to get really lumpy and bumpy after 10. I wanted to dismiss it as any other lump, but it wasn’t just in the skin, it felt deeper.
So I explored on, and I felt his lymph nodes under his jaw, and one seemed a bit bigger. But I wasn’t sure. After losing 2 other goldens, and our cat Zeus, I sometimes find myself super paranoid thinking something is really wrong, but it isn’t.
So for two days I played the, hmmm, something is going on here, I’m sure it is lymphoma, which rapidly switched back and forth to ahhh, stop it, it’s nothing, stop being so paranoid.
Then on Thursday, there was definite swelling in the that right lymph node under his jaw. Infection? Cancer? Blocked saliva duct? Did he just hurt himself chewing on that stupid rawhide stick the other day?
I called the local vet. He was heading out of town for a remote call, so we made an appointment for Saturday morning. Thursday was a long day. I was trying to work, but was super distracted, and Monty was uncommonly calm.
By Thursday night his lymph node area in his neck was getting scary big. Bigger than a golf ball. Almost felt like a couple golf balls in there. Surely it would be okay until his Saturday appointment… ?
We had a restless sleep and kept checking on him. By morning, Friday, it was bigger than I could put my hand around, and fluid was gathering in his lips and face. The huge hard softball went so deep inside his neck, I was terrified it was going to cut off his breathing. We leapt out of bed and started packing our bags and emergency supplies so we could rush him to a Whitehorse vet. As soon as they opened at 8am, I had a vet in Whitehorse on the phone who agreed to see us just as fast as we could get there.
We stopped at a security company on the way out a town, a local man who watches houses while you are out of town, more out of fear of the furnace failing and the pipes freezing than anything else. We gave him a key and said we were rushing out of town for an emergency and weren’t sure if we’d be back in a day, or if it would be longer.
We left town by 8:30am on Friday. It was pitch black and snowing. We were unsure what would lie ahead. Surgery? Bad news? Would today be his last? How bad will this swelling get on the way?
Here are a few pics I was taking out of the front window to pass the time.
We made it in 6 hours. Dr. Matt at the Alpine Vet Clinic saw us right away.
He felt his lymph nodes and concluded in 2 seconds that it was lymphoma. He said all his lymph nodes were enlarged, including that lump I felt in his chest. He said his age, combined with being a Golden Retriever, with lymph nodes enlarged, it didn’t have much likelihood of being anything else. Maybe a slim chance of something fungal, but really only if he had been in the US lately.
He gave us a few choices. Said if it was too much to take, some people opt to put their dog down right away. He also said there was an excellent chemo vet on their staff and they’ve been making terrific progress with canine chemo. It wouldn’t promise a complete cure, but sometimes they can get pretty close.
At this point, I really appreciated his candor, despite all my tears that were flowing. In moments like this, I don’t want the sugar coated version. Tell me like it is so we can make some decisions.
He offered to do more tests, if we were willing to pay the costs. He said he’d like to do a chest xray series, to see if the cancer had spread to his lungs, or elsewhere. He also wanted to do a blood test – a CBC – to check his red and white blood cell counts. I had Monty’s blood test results from his neuter surgery in June, but they weren’t a full CBC so we didn’t have a comparison. He also wanted to take a sample from the lymph node to look at it under the microscope.
We agreed and gave our permission. If the cancer was spread through him, despite having not a single other symptom, we weren’t sure it would be fair to bring him home, especially being 6 hours away from this clinic.
He took Monty into the back for the procedures. I went to the lobby to update family (and cry) and Jeff went for a coffee run.
In probably just 15-20 minutes, the vet came out with Monty. We thought we’d get to sit with him for awhile while we waited for test results, but he immediately called us into the exam room again.
Breathe deep…. here we go.
He said it was definitely lymphoma, as shown in the sample he took from the lymph nodes. But he said his lungs were completely clear. Heart is good. Organs are fine. All his blood levels were in normal range. We got it early!!!
But it doesn’t matter. Lymphoma isn’t curable.
He suggested a heavy dose of prednisone, a 50mg dose per day for two weeks, then half that afterwards. He discussed Monty with the chemo specialist who agreed that Monty just wasn’t a great candidate, not only for his age, but also because it requires a weekly IV and we are living 6 hours away. (That IV would be $700 a pop, by the way.)
He warned us though, that the lifespan we’re looking at is still 0 days to 2-3 months. He said some dogs just can’t handle the high prednisone dose, hence the 0 day possibility.
So we were all in agreement. We’d bring him home and try the prednisone. Dr. Matt said he’d call us in a few days to see how he was handling the dose (some dogs get bloody ulcers). He also warned us this wouldn’t be a good course of action if we were wanting to try a bunch of homeopathy treatments, as the two just won’t work together.
He said he’ll be panting, thirsty, and desperately hungry. He said that can cause additional problems because he’ll probably want to eat anything he sees, socks, garbage, anything.
He gave us a month dose, which we’ll be able to also get from our local vet, and off we went.
We were drained. I was crying. Monty was drooling everywhere from the swelling. We got a hotel room, and then thought we might as well do a bit of quick shopping since we had just driven all the way to Whitehorse. We had been thinking we would be coming to the city to see Star Wars over the holidays. How silly it seemed now. Nothing has much importance when you find out your family member has less than 3 months to live. There’s no way he’s spending a couple hours of that sitting in a cold truck while we’re watching Star Wars. We can wait until it comes out on DVD.
We went back to the hotel to give Monty his first prednisone pill with his dinner. I made him sit for this photo so you could see all the fluid accumulation in his neck and jowels. The vet said the lymph node must had plugged up the drainage by that lymph node which caused the rapid swelling. What the photo doesn’t show is the big hard lump behind the fluid that was bigger than I could put my hand around.
It was another restless night. Partially because it was soooo hot and dry in the hotel, plus the bed was a big old uncomfortable mattress, but luckily king-sized, so Monty slept between us, well… slept, when he wasn’t sitting up panting.
This morning there wasn’t much change in the swelling, but it wasn’t bigger, and that was a relief. We packed up and decided we might as well hit the grocery store too before we headed back to Dawson. We didn’t have a cooler, but it was -8C, so we could buy meat and things that could freeze and put them in the back of the pick up truck.
Then we headed for home. Oh wait! First, we peaked through the windows of the closed Honda dealership so Jeff could point out to me all the sleds he wants Santa to bring.
We left the city around 9:30am, heading for home.
You probably can’t tell, but in the picture above there are a dozen elk or so, up high on the hills. This is the herd near the Braeburn Lodge. Just before we got to the Braeburn lodge, the temperature, which had been about -8C, plummeted to -29C. It was so sudden, and we could really feel the cold air coming off the front window.
By this time, it was obvious that Monty’s swelling was reducing! He was still drooly, but his lips were definitely going back to where they should be!
The sun doesn’t rise too far above the horizon in the Yukon, so close to the winter solstice. It makes everything soooo beautiful. These photos don’t do it justice at all. Since it doesn’t rise so high, there are a lot of pastels, pinks, and orange, in the sky. When it hits the snow covered trees, it is so pretty. The trees north of Whitehorse are like fake snow covered trees you’d make in a craft store and put in a Christmas scene. It is never very windy here, just cold, and the snow gradually builds up with the frost on the trees. Most of them are bend over from the weight of the snow.
We also saw a lynx! Jeff saw two actually, but I didn’t turn my head fast enough to see the first one. Lynx are really beautiful creatures. I always feel fortunate when I catch a glimpse of one.
Despite seeing tracks in the snow EVERYWHERE, we didn’t see any of the other wildlife. Maybe they’re all nocturnal 😉
Monty was peaceful and calm for the entire trip home (he was much more restless on the way down to the vet, which may be because he was picking up on my panicked mood).
We’ve been home for a few hours, and he’s doing good tonight. My mom had sent him a couple Christmas presents that she insisted he open immediately. He’s got two new toys and played with them for at least an hour.
Canine lymphoma isn’t a fun thing to Google. It is a systemic condition. I’ve seen many stories of dogs having just a week or two. Maybe a month. It seems so unreal since he doesn’t have any symptoms other than swollen lymph nodes (aside from this fluid accumulation). I’ve heard of a couple stories where a dog has made it to 8 or 9 months.
I think about how my Zeus cat was given a few weeks to live, and he lasted more than two years on prednisone alone! But I don’t think that was lymphoma.
I have no idea what is ahead, other than the obvious heartbreak that is inevitable. You know it when you adopt a pet that the day will come. I almost blogged back in October how he had just turned 10, and it felt like a relief, in a way, that he made it past that 10 year milestone, when so many Golden Retrievers these days don’t.
It’s almost like deja-vu, thinking of the days that will be ahead. I’ll wake up each day, not knowing if this will be the one. Wondering if he is sick enough that I should make the call for the vet, scared to do it too soon, scared to do it too late. Knowing that final crescendo moment is coming, with the vet, and electric razor, the alcohol swab, and the needles, and the final kiss goodbye, as my tears sink into their fur. Knowing the feeling of your heart ripping out of your chest when their breath stops, and the quick, guilty peace you feel when their suffering eases. Will it be any different this time? How soon until he is unwell? How can we possibly live life to the fullest when the temperature is about to plunge to -37C by Christmas? How quickly will we fall apart without a pet in the house? Will I ever want a dog ever again?