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Part Two: What is it like to live with, love, and lose a dog with cancer? Let me tell you...

I posted the last part in this blog series on June 21st, 9 days before we had to somewhat unexpectedly say goodbye to my soul dog, Gracie. Until now, I didn't have the space to finish this series and never expected to cover her loss in it, but here we are. This is going to be a long one, so hang in there.

A small white dog with black spots on her back runs with joy, chasing waves at the beach.
Gracie chasing waves with what I can only describe as pure joy during one of our vacations.

I left off the last post when we received Gracie's cancer diagnosis. After receiving her diagnosis, I felt like my world shattered. I had done everything "right" over the years to prevent future health issues - we kept active, she was fed a high quality diet, received regular preventative veterinary care, we kept her brain active with enrichment, and so much more. Regardless of those things, she had still had cancer. It took me a long time to realize that cancer just happens. We can do everything to put the odds in our favor and it can happen anyways. We could analyze every factor that might have played into her diagnosis, but instead I've learned that the most helpful way for me to view is as if it was always there, the cancer was pre-written somewhere in her DNA. All that I had done over the years kept it in the dark until it was inevitable.

Gracie's t-zone leukemia/lymphoma was not curable, but was treatable with good prognosis with chemotherapy. We got fast tracked for an appointment with oncology and gathered all our questions. If we were going to do chemotherapy to prolong her life, I wanted to be sure that we weren't just prolonging it for my benefit - that her quality of life would be high. Chemotherapy is scary to face, especially at the beginning. Gracie's oncologist selected Chlorambucil (also known as Leukeran - an oral chemotherapy that could be administered at home) to treat her cancer given that it also would likely help with some of her IBD symptoms. The chemotherapy med is filled by an online pharmacy and shipped to your home, so you don't receive it immediately.

We were also prescribed steroids (Prednisolone) to help her feel better quickly. We started the steroids first since they were more accessible and seeing as by the time we had the appointment with oncology, Gracie's appetite was tanking and we were starting to see her cancer affect her quality of life. If you've never been on or had a dog on steroids, be prepared for your dog to be HUNGRY, thirsty, and to have to urinate a lot more. Gracie's appetite quickly returned and it was clear she was feeling better. I made sure to keep her on a puppy potty schedule to ensure that she didn't have any accidents as well as purchased a reusable potty pad for her to rest on in case she developed any incontinence. I was less nervous about the steroids than the chemotherapy.

Very shortly after starting the steroids, we started chemotherapy and let me tell you that it was HEAVY for me. When we picture chemo, we picture the human version - people very sick, suffering many side effects, and being generally miserable in order to treat their cancer. Chemotherapy in dogs is different. They receive much smaller doses and are much less likely to develop side effects. That doesn't mean it doesn't come with risks for you and your dog. The instructions that come along with oral chemotherapy are quite frankly terrifying. There is risk of exposure since you will be the one handling and administering the medication. The meds are stored in a bag inside your fridge, you have to wear gloves, dispose of any materials during administering in a bag, and clean the area and you hands thoroughly. In addition, you have to be more careful picking up your dog's waste or if they do have side effects, any diarrhea or vomiting. I cried the first time Gracie happily swallowed her chemo pills. She probably thought nothing more of it beyond getting a yummy treat. Aside from having a very mildly elevated respiratory rate on the first day - I was in the habit of counting resting respiratory rate given she also had early stage heart disease - you would not have known my dog was on chemotherapy for the majority of her treatment.

After the initial fear wore off, Gracie's chemotherapy and frequent oncology check ups became a way of life. Her quality of life was still so high. She looked forward to training, play, and cuddles and for the most part was unchanged. The hardest part to cope with was the change in behavior. Gracie developed separation distress along with her cancer if we left for longer than an hour or after 3 PM in the afternoon. She would stand at the back door staring out the window for the duration of the absence. She didn't vocalize or show obvious signs of stress, but it was clear to me she was silently suffering when we were gone. So, I worked with a separation anxiety trainer to see if we could make some improvements - and we did - but I eventually just stopped leaving. I made sure someone would be home with her, if I had to leave. Many didn't understand this decision. I missed holidays with family, get togethers, friends, and more - but for me, it was a small price to pay. Aside from that, she often would refuse food at the start of meal times. I can't blame her much. She was on a hydrolyzed diet and they aren't known for being the most palatable or desirable. However, it was always brief and if I cued some easy, well known behaviors, she would choose to eat and happily eat on her own. Our reinforcement history for eating was a strong one, thankfully, so while it was never an issue for her, this never stopped being hard for me, even though it did not severely impact her quality of life.

During the course of Gracie's treatments, we experienced so many wins! She handled it with grace and strength that I was in awe of. She kicked her cancer's butt for a year and was tapered down to a low dose of chemo for a long time! It was mostly my partner and I that carried the weight of her diagnosis and that eventually we would lose the war, whether to her cancer or something else. At the end of the day, I wouldn't do anything differently. We had an extra year of quality life with Gracie where she spent the majority of her time filled with joy and spunk as she always had been. We had two instances during her treatment where her GI disease flared up, which required a break in chemo. Aside from that, no one would guess she had cancer unless I told them.

The next part of this is going to be heavy, so if you want to jump ship now, I understand...

A small white dog laying in a purple dog bed with rainbow patterns from light through the window on her back.
One of the last photos I took of Gracie on the morning of June 30, 2023.

The second and last of these flare ups was during her last month. We had just gotten her appetite and stool stable again after the flare. I was fully prepared for to continue to bounce back as she had previously. I had purchased more chemo drugs, I had 3 months of follow up appointments at her oncologist scheduled, and I had just stocked up on her prescription food. Even a few days prior she was playing, happily eating, enjoying enrichment and her usual happy self, until she wasn't. When I woke up on June 30th to feed the dogs, Gracie and Ollie trotted downstairs with me as they always did. They went out to potty as they always did. When I set down Gracie's food, she turned her nose up and looked at me almost pleadingly. I sat with her as I always did, but she just did not want to eat. None of our usual go-to's worked. I was prepared for this moment - I had entyce, a medication to help stimulate appetite on hand - but I didn't want to push or give her anything new since she was fresh on the mend from a flare. So I dumped her food, sat and the table and cried. I knew then, but wasn't ready. We all went back to bed and cuddled for awhile and then got up to go to the park for a decompression walk. Gracie walked slowly that day. When we came home, my husband tried to feed her again and she still didn't want to eat. So I gave her a dose of her medication to help with nausea to ensure she was comfortable and we talked. Something about her was off that day. Her breathing was shallower and quicker, she was tired and devoid of her usual spirit, and she looked like she had aged 5 years over night. I could barely utter the words to my husband that I thought it was time, expecting him to not be willing to accept what I also did not want to accept. We were in turmoil over the decision for a good hour or two. We could rush her in for more tests, but we both felt confident it wouldn't change the outcome, it would likely only confirm that something was seriously wrong and cause her a lot of stress in the process. We wanted more time, but with the Fourth of July right around the corner, we didn't want her last days to be filled with fear and stress. So I called the vet, barely able to choke out the words to schedule her end.

We spent the rest of our last day doing all her favorite things. We played fetch. We cuddled. We went to Starbuck's and got her a pup cup and some egg bites, something she hadn't been able to have in years. She was barely interested in those when I offered them and mostly ate some to appease me. I did manage to get her to eat when we played tug and shredded cardboard tubes together. Close to the time, we pre-medicated her for her final visit to the vet, wanting her end to be easy and fear free. The same dose she had received plenty of times cause her to stumble and struggle. We held her and cried. The decision to say goodbye is unimaginably hard. She had spent her life saving me in ways I didn't even know that I needed saving. In her final years, I felt I was able to truly able to repay her and save from her cancer - something many don't have the opportunity to do. The only way I had left to save her was to spare her of any suffering. I had a year to prepare for this moment, but you're never ready to say goodbye to someone you love.

When it was time, I wrapped her in her favorite blanket and we drove with heavy hearts to the vet, choking back tears, not wanting to worry her. We sat in the car for a few minutes, both of our feet seemingly filled with led. I mustered all my strength and carried her in. I held her on my lap while we picked what box her remains would return to us in - a blur of a decision, that felt so meaningless in that moment. Thankfully, my husband picked a beautiful box with flowers carved on it that suits her. She was so calm for the catheter placement, unafraid - which is what I wanted for her. We held her, kissed her, said goodbyes, and waited for the vet. When our vet came in, he asked if we wanted more time. Of course, I wanted more time... but not in that moment, I wanted to rewind time. Knowing that wasn't possible, we proceeded. It was over so quick. When her soul departed, so did a piece of mine. What ensued after I can only describe as pure agony. I didn't know what to do with myself. I sobbed audibly in a way I've never cried before in my life, but there was no controlling it. I touched her and everything inside me hurt. I didn't know whether I needed to run or be sick. My husband and I held each other and cried. My vet is a family friend and his wife had seen us come in with Gracie. I think my sobs were too much because she came in the room and hugged me in a way I didn't know I needed. She also gave me a bag for the car in case I got sic - an act of kindness I'll never forget. After she left, we stood there for awhile with what was left of our Gracie. We gently removed her collar, harness, and her blanket with a pit in my stomach. I considered leaving the blanket with her, but I thought Ollie might need it (and secretly, I did too). My favorite vet nurse in the whole world came into the room and gently, took her body away when we were "ready" - I put that in quotes because I don't think you're ready for anything in that moment. I thought I would struggle more with leaving than I did, but what was left wasn't her anymore. When we went to pay for everything, we were told it was covered - a dear friend had called ahead and covered the cost for us, which was a gift that I truly cannot express the magnitude of. One, I hope to pay forward one day.

When we got in the car, I was probably at the worst I have ever been. How my husband drove us home with my uncontrollable sobbing and continual, mindless uttering of "Oh, Gracie," I honestly don't know. I was on some weird fight or flight induced autopilot, both acutely aware of the pain of my chest yet also removed from my body, somewhere else. When we finally got home, Ollie greeted us as he always has and when he couldn't find Gracie, he too was inconsolable, resorting to suckling a toy for hours as we cried together on the couch clutching her things as if they would bring her back. Moving forward over the next few days was unimaginably hard. We took her blanket and collar with us around the house just as she would have followed us. We cried... a lot. We looked through pictures and watched videos. We wished for her back. We re-lived her final moments on repeat. The Fourth of July was really hard on all of us, the worst I'd ever seen Ollie experience. I was grateful I spared her that suffering.

A small tan dog lays his head on the edge of a dogbed with a blanket and purple collar of his former friend.
Ollie cuddling with Gracie's blanket and collar in the office in the days after we said goodbye to Gracie.

In the first few weeks, you feel like a ghost yourself. You go through the actions, but your heart and head aren't there. For years, I thought when Gracie died, I'd die with her. In a way, some of me did. Now on what would have been Gracie's 14th birthday and it having been just over 18 weeks since saying goodbye, I'm still not the same as I was and I don't think I ever will be again. I'm better in some ways and worse in others - it's hard to explain. Profound loss changes you in that way. It's not visible to others that you're different, but you are. You see the world differently, you feel things differently, and you carry an invisible mark that bares a heaviness that will never fade. And in way, it makes sense, I love Gracie as freely as you can love someone else. Now that she's gone, I still carry that love but it has changed shape into grief. Most days, you can tuck grief neatly away, but occasionally a huge wave crashes over you, pulls you under, and threatens to keep you there unless you kick your legs and swim back to the surface. In time, those waves come crashing down less frequently. And in time, there is even beauty in those waves - or at least that has been my experience - you see the colors shimmering through the water and when you break the surface, you see the beauty of a sunset painted across the sky and appreciate all for what it is. These days, I still hurt and waves still crash down, but I break to the surface with less effort.

Ollie has also struggled greatly through all of it. He didn't know our home without Gracie and while they weren't ever the type of dogs who cuddled much, it was clear he took so much comfort in her steady presence. She always had a way about her, with people and with him. When we lost her, many of his behaviors that had all but disappeared, returned in force. His anxiety was worse, he was quicker to aggress over things that would not have resulted in aggression previously, and overall more reactive. Those have all faded now, but he is also changed. He always needed me, but he needs me more these days. Some days he clearly wants something, but after siphoning through the things I can offer, I can't figure out what it is. As I sit here and reflect, I think in those moments, a wave crashes for him too and I think it's her - he wants her, just like I still want her.

In all of it, I wouldn't change anything. I'd choose her all over again, would do the chemo again in a heartbeat, and I'd make the same agonizing decision I did. Honestly, I am just immensely grateful to have belonged to one another. I know she is free from pain and suffering now. Gracie was a once in a lifetime type of dog. How lucky was I to hit the jackpot with my first dog as an adult? When I close my eyes, I imagine her at the beach, chasing the waves with pure joy as she did on one of our vacations together. Sometimes she visits me in our dreams and we sit together, her in my arms, and watch the sunset together knowing that when I wake up she will still be gone. These days, when the waves roll in, I don't fight them. I think the waves are always brewing in the distance - a groundswell not visible from shore. When they come, I let them roll in, crash over me, pull me under and I kick to the surface with a newfound strength, that I can only describe as her - she is my strength now. When my head breaks the water, I wait for the waves roll back to sea and watch the beautiful sunset in the calm waters - the life we shared together. Even though she is gone, she lives on in me and in all things I do. She is my constant reminder that I am strong, that I am worthy, that life is worth living, and that opening your heart to love is worth the pain that it might cause.

A person's arm with a fresh tattoo of a purple and teal wave with shades of a pink orange, and yellow sunset on the edge of the wave.
A tattoo of a wave I got in her memory.

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1 Comment

Shannon Waters
Shannon Waters
Nov 08, 2023

Thank you for being vulnerable and honest. It is, as you write, "unimaginably hard." There is no other dog who is Gracie and the two of you shared an extraordinary love.

When my sidekick soul dog, Nicki, left the earth, I was mostly alone in my unending grief. I kept telling myself to be grateful that I got to know her and got to be saved by her, twice. It has taken over a year to gradually feel more gratitude and less excruciating longing. Grief takes as long as it takes, with no way to truly bypass it.

That you had the courage to share your rawest emotions and experiences helps remind the rest of us not to bypass our…

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