Devastating news far too soon

As friends and acquaintances have asked, I’ve had to tell this story too many times now, and we’re not yet at the final chapter. I’m writing this partly as reference for further requests, and partly to get the words down just as I want them. I probably still won’t get it right, but you can’t hear my voice crack in my writing.

Anyone who’s been to our place, and those who’ve encountered or walked with us in our neighbourhood, know our beloved Darby, the nearly 11 year old Shepherd Lab cross who’s been the apple of our family’s collective eye for 10 years and four months. A testament to adopting an SPCA shelter mutt if ever there was one, Darby was diagnosed with aggressive, terminal bone cancer this past Sunday, August 25th, 2013.

As this is moving rapidly, I’m just going to journal the diagnosis and current state of affairs. And, as I’m able to process further developments, I know more words about her will come. For now, after three days of hell and more to come, this is what I have.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Fresh off a play-filled visit with one of her old dog buddies the day before, on August 11th I noticed a barely perceptible limp on our afternoon dog walk, and chalked it up to an exhuberance-induced tweak of some sort. Over the following week, the limp became far more pronounced and Darby was taken to the vet for x-rays on that Friday. Based on how she was limping it appeared she was favouring her right shoulder. The imaging focused on that area and all bone structure looked fine, with the vet’s opinion being that she was just dealing with a stubborn strain.

The limp continued to worsen still this past week, but we began to notice she was actually favouring the left paw and not planting it heavily as she walked. This past Friday we noticed some swelling on the left front lower leg just above the paw joint, so we took her into the vet again this past Saturday. After looking at the swelling, the vet wanted to get more x-rays of the left leg this time and, despite the fact our clinic normally does no x-rays on weekends, told us to bring her back Sunday at 1pm.

The vet did have one picture from the previous week of both paws which hadn’t been reviewed before, with just a bit of each leg in the image. The left leg looked abnormal, with a dark mass above the paw joint, and so we got a picture of the full leg without having to sedate her again. Based on the new x-ray, the vet confirmed that Darby has osteosarcoma, a fairly common bone cancer among primarily larger breed dogs, which typically occurs just above the paw or shoulder joint. The segment of bone already affected is roughly the size of a thin egg and while it’s hard to see from my phone pic below, the cancerous bone tissue in the leg image to the right is starting to run up the middle of the leg.

The right paw above (her left) and left leg have advanced sarcoma

No realistic options

If a dog is young and you happen to find this before symptoms appear, you might get lucky with amputation or limb-saving surgery, followed by a chemo/radiation regimen. When a dog is Darby’s age, and the tumour is this advanced and causing a limp, there’s nothing you can do to significantly alter the inevitable, particularly as the cancer has almost certainly spread by now. In fact, if the leg holds out longer than expected, we’ll likely begin seeing laboured breathing and coughing in the near future. As she’s limping, but apparently happy and fairly comfortable at the moment, the thought of pumping her full of chemicals and radiation on the off-chance of adding a month or two to her life, isn’t my idea of compassion. Is it worth making her sicker for that?

When I asked about the number of months we might be looking at, I was told we weren’t talking months and that we’d likely have to put her down within six weeks, if not sooner. From the reading I’ve done, and the speed with which things are developing, this appears to be the case. I also spoke via Twitter with a friend whose dog had the very same thing, and they went from initial limp to euthanasia in two weeks.

Including a toe last year, Darby has had a couple small tumours removed in the past three years, and aside from this, has been in remarkably good health her entire life. To most people she appears and acts several years younger. At this time, she’s on some pain and inflammation meds and not struggling badly yet. As this progresses, she will likely get to the point that she can’t walk on it and the risk of a fracture will increase day by day.

Decision time approaches

My wife and I are taking turns working from home now. We have agreed that, as soon as she can’t support herself or stops using it altogether, we’ll put her down. For now we can’t leave her alone in case she should suffer a fracture. In that case, an emergency euthanasia trip to the vet would be immediate. We’re hoping we’ll be clear enough on the signs that we can book it a couple days in advance and prepare. With the speed at which the limp and swelling has developed, unfortunately, we’re operating on the assumption that we’ll be lucky to see two more weeks.