Have you ever received an unexpected gift …and realized later – that unbeknownst to the sender – the arrival of the present was actually perfectly timed? On Friday, September 23, I leashed-up Lager for his walk. When I opened the gate, a beautiful bouquet of red-white-and-blue flowers greeted us! A very special person sent this amazing bouquet along with a note that read “Sending pawsitive thoughts and prayers. Stay strong. You got this!” When I reached out to thank her, she said, “Something kept tugging at my heart to get those sent.”
With the help of Brian, I have been checking Lager’s surgical area since he had his mass removed. When we returned from our walk, I asked Brian for assistance to check Lager’s mouth. To our dismay, it looked to us like the mass has already begun to grow back. I contacted Lager’s primary veterinarian, Dr. Helen Campbell, who agreed that it appeared to be regrowth from the photos I sent her. Panic and distress overwhelmed me. We knew achieving clean margins during Lager’s initial surgery was not going to be possible. However, I was taken aback at how rapidly the mass had returned…and at the size that it had grown already. It was then that I realized that the beautiful patriotic bouquet arrived just in time …that the something (or someone?!) tugging at my friend’s heart made sure of that…to remind me to be honest with myself about the current situation, but to also have hope – and look forward to positive outcomes.
“Take a walk outside – it will serve you far more than pacing around in your mind.” ~Rasheed Ogunlaru
Once you hear the word “cancer,” it’s easy to let your mind wander in a million different directions. I’m definitely guilty of letting my mind march itself right down it’s own panic-stricken path. I have found that walking with Lager helps lead my “pacing” mind to find a refreshed, positive course. I talk to Lager, I pray, I plan, and I enjoy. I let Lager set the pace and allow him to create our adventure, stopping and exploring anything he wishes along the way. Although I use an app on my phone to track our walks, I do so more to celebrate our time together, rather than race to get done.
Lager’s medical team is aware of the new re-growth of the mass. Thankfully, I was able to move up Lager’s oncology appointment to a sooner date. Brian and I will continue to check the mass, and I will be in contact with Lager’s primary veterinarian as well as his oncologist to keep them informed of our observations and any changes we note.
Brian and I are extremely grateful for all of the private messages, prayers, kind gestures, encouragement, and support. These are all reminders that we are not alone on this journey, and we appreciate that beyond what words can express.
For those of you who may have just recently joined our pack’s adventure, Lager was a Contracted Working Dog (CWD) and served our country as an explosives detection canine. His war zone name was Nayt, and he spent 18 months in Iraq, checking cars for explosives at the the US Embassy in Baghdad. He was one of the lucky ones to have had his privately contracted company pay to fly him back to the United a states after his tour ended, as many working dogs are not as fortunate. Upon Lager’s return to the U.S., we adopted him (read his full adoption story HERE). Lager has been enjoying his civilian life with us for the last 7 years with us with his favorite pastimes being swimming & dock diving. However, Lager has recently found himself back in a war zone of a different kind. On September 16th, he was diagnosed with oral papillary squamous cell carcinoma.
Discovery of Lager’s Mass
September 6, 2022
After a phenomenal performance at a World Championship dock diving qualifier, earning better scores as a 10 year old than the 1 and 3 year olds in his division and placing 2nd overall in Warrior Iron Dog, we were riding home in our camper on Tuesday, September 6, 2022 when I discovered the mass. Lager showed absolutely no signs of being in pain or not feeling well before, during, or after the competition. Lager does not appreciate having his mouth examined. Although I brush his teeth, it’s more of a “shove the toothbrush in and brush what I can” kind of thing, and I never get a good look in his mouth. While he was sleeping with his head on my lap on the way home in the camper, his bottom jowls were hanging in a way that enabled me to catch a glimpse of something abnormal. My heart sunk as my eyes focused on a mass located just behind his left lower canine. The growth was mostly covered by all those “extra bird dog bottom lips.” However, had I been able to do regular mouth checks and pulled those lips away from the canine, this mass could have been discovered much sooner. Please consider this a reminder to check your dogs regularly. Checking your dog’s oral health as a part of a routine cancer check is extremely important. If your dog isn’t a fan of you brushing their teeth or inspecting their mouth, get a friend or family member to help you, seek advice on training techniques that condition your dog to allow his/her mouth to be fully scrutinized, or ask your veterinarian to to an oral check at your dog’s routine visits.
Initial Primary Veterinarian Visit
September 7, 2022
I called our primary veterinarian, Dr. Helen Campbell at Old York Veterinary Hospital, from our RV immediately after I discovered the mass. She fit us into her busy schedule on Wednesday, September 7th. She was immediately concerned with what she saw and squeezed him into her surgery day that Friday, September 9th. She explained that most times oral masses such as this grow very deep, often invading the teeth and/or bone, and that getting clean margins during the surgery that Friday may not be possible. Dr. Campbell further shared that often times dogs will have to see an oral surgeon to remove the rest of the affected area whether the mass is malignant or benign. Dr. Campbell is one of the most brilliant, patient and kind people I know, and her staff is beyond amazing. Dr. Campbell and her staff not only provide the best care for our fur-kids, they are gentle and understanding with the humans in our pack. I ask a million questions, conjure up every “what-if” scenario, constantly ask Dr. Campbell to spell-out medical terms that I’m trying to write down in my notepad, and can’t pronounce a single medical term correctly…this woman is a SAINT. I am so grateful for everyone at Old York for not only keeping our 4-legged kids healthy, but also for for putting up with my high-strung personality (Dr. Campbell kindly calls me “motivated”…lol).
September 9, 2022
On September 9th Lager had the visible part of his oral mass removed by Dr. Campbell at Old York Veterinary Hospital so that it could be sent for biopsy in order to give us better direction on what we are dealing with. Lager made it through the surgery without any issues. However, Dr. Campbell did have to attack this mass as aggressively as possible, creating a gingival flap and cauterizing the area …so Lager’s healing period may be extensive.
Pathology Report – Not The News We Were Hoping For
September 16, 2022
On September 16th, we spoke to our primary veterinarian, Dr. Campbell who delivered the news we feared the most…Lager’s mass is malignant. The pathology report proved that the mass was oral papillary squamous cell carcinoma, and that surgical margins were incompletely excised (that part we were prepared for).
Oral papillary squamous cell carcinomas are locally invasive and potentially locally destructive with a moderate to high possibility for recurrence due to incomplete excisions. Masses may range from being entirely noninvasive to showing invasive growth, including bone intrusion. They do, however, have a very low potential to metastasize. X-rays were taken during Lager’s surgery with Dr. Helen Campbell. In viewing the radiographs, Dr. Campbell is hopeful that the mass did not invade the bone. There is, however, a questionable area that will be further explored by an oncologist and/or oral surgeon. If the mass did invade the bone, Lager may be required to have teeth removed and/or a partial mandibulectomy.
Initial Plan of Attack
It was a Friday when we learned of Lager’s diagnosis…which was probably a good thing considering I needed a few days to get my head straight. I spent that weekend on a rollercoaster of feelings: Disbelief, sadness, anger, guilt, numbness. Guilt consumed me. I blamed myself for not finding this mass sooner…for not finding a way to get a look in Lager’s mouth…for not seeking help. It took some deep reflection for me to remember that I am no good to Lager when I am wrapped up in myself. I looked back on my past blog entries when I was faced with a cancer diagnosis (not once, but twice) with our beloved Margarita to help me remember that my firstpriority is not finding the right treatment for Lager – but rather dealing with my emotions in order to clear my mind and be able to focus energy where it is needed…on Lager. I also knew I had to adjust my mindset and find the strength to be hopeful and positive. Living with Margarita’s cancer diagnosis – watching her go through chemo and then beat Lymphoma and maintain remission – only to lose her to hepatocellular carcinoma forced me to change my mindset altogether. Through it all, Margarita lived each day in-the-moment and enjoyed each second. She wasn’t worried about dying – she was focused on living. Even while she was sick, she encouraged others and spread positivity – and is still doing so in spirit to this day. As humans, when we hear that cancer diagnosis, we tend to start mourning our dogs who are still very much living. We have a lot to learn from dogs – live in the moment and enjoy the NOW. Lager has no idea he has cancer – he’s as happy and bouncy as always … and if anyone picks up on human emotion efficiently, it’s a dog (I swear they have super powers!) I am Lager’s guardian – it is imperative for me to maintain optimistic and in good spirits (no matter how difficult it may be) in order to preserve Lager’s emotional well being during his journey.
The next step was scheduling a consultation with the oncologist. I have secured an appointment and have begun to create my list of questions in preparation for the consultation. When we meet with the oncologist, he will advise us at that time on what direction is recommended for Lager.
Effective immediately: Get moving! Although Lager is an active 10 year old in general, I have been slacking lately in the “taking each dog for a daily walk” department. Studies have shown that exercise is beneficial for cancer patients – both human and canine. Exercise can enhance your mood, reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and boost energy… all of which is much needed for both Lager and myself at this point to ensure we are mentally and physically fit for his journey. Lager and I will be starting a daily walk regimen and may even choose to start doing virtual 5K’s for charity again. There is always strength in numbers… join Lager’s Legion…we’d love your company walking with us either in person or virtually!
United We Stand
We are almost certain at this point that we will not attend the DockDogs World Championship. We are a team…we play together, we stay together, and we fight together. No dog left behind…If Lager has to sit-out, we all sit-out. It is uncertain at this time if Lager is still in any discomfort – or if he will be at the time of the competition. These masses typically cause discomfort, yet Lager showed no signs of pain while competing, chomping down on bumpers and toys with enthusiasm during his last competition before the mass was discovered. Lager will do ANYthing you ask of him, which makes it near impossible to observe if he is in pain. We still need to be careful and make sure Lager isn’t aggravating his surgical area, as it is still in the healing process, and we won’t know if that area will be fully healed by the time he would be at the World Championship. Until Lager is further evaluated by an oncologist and we have more answers, we won’t feel comfortable with Lager participating in competition or traveling 1,039 miles away from his medical team. We look forward to the World Championship every year – we work all season toward the goal of getting all dogs qualified…so we will be greatly disappointed if we miss the World Championship and miss the opportunity to see competitors – extended family – that we haven’t seen since last year or even before Covid… but Lager’s health takes precedence.
Guardian Angels Up Above Please Protect the Ones We Love
September 17, 2022 The night following Lager’s diagnosis, Brian and I went to dinner with my sister, Casey, and my 9 yr old nephew, James. On the way to dinner Casey asked how Lager was doing (we had not told James anything at this point). James asked what we were talking about and Brian gave him the gist of the story, which made James sad. We forgot to make reservations so when we arrived to the busy restaurant we had a short wait. As we stood waiting for our table, Casey spotted a penny on the floor and pointed it out to James. I said to James “Pick it up!… You know what they say – ‘pennies from Heaven’…Someone is sending us a message!” James picked up the penny and without looking at it, put it in his pocket. Later at the dinner table, James bet me the penny on something. I won, and James turned the penny over to me. My eyes immediately filled with tears. The year on the penny was 2016 … the year we met Penelope…who we called PENNY… and adopted as Margarita!! Sweet Reet was letting us know that she’s going to be alongside Lager through his journey!
A good friend sent me this book when Rita had passed away:
Once a Soldier, Always a Soldier
Hey Cancer, you picked a battle with the wrong dog. Lager was a soldier in Iraq …He is known as Captain America in the DockDogs community…And he has an army of amazing people (if you are reading this, that’s YOU!) behind him…so I hate to break it to ya, “big C, ” but you better be ready for the fight of your life.