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And then the house and the sky fell quiet

3 Jan

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“Good morning, Zooey.”

For the past twelve years Zooey has slept in her crate next to our bed. Yesterday, like so many mornings before, I woke up, rolled over and said those three little words. In that moment, I didn’t know it would be the last time.

When I opened her crate door, I noticed right away something was wrong. Zooey was having trouble walking and the fluid had built up significantly outside her abdomen. As the cardiology vets had told us, they could drain the fluid from her abdomen a couple more times, but there was no way to remove the fluid that was building up in her skin outside her abdomen.

For weeks I’d been reading end-of-life articles and trying to find an answer to the question: When is the right time to let go? (Here’s one of the best articles I came across)

Now I knew we’d reached that time. Veronika and I talked it over, and made the incredibly painful decision to schedule Zooey’s euthanasia later in the afternoon. We made the call at 11AM and set up an appointment for 4PM.

Once the decision was made, the waiting became excruciating. Emotions and thoughts started rushing through my mind and I was constantly questioning whether or not we were doing the right thing.

We were also questioning where we should do this. With Jasper we settled on an at-home procedure, but for Zooey that just didn’t feel right. We decided returning to the University of Minnesota’s Small Animal Hospital made the most sense for us given that Zooey had become comfortable with the doctors and technicians there.

With everything in place, there was one last thing we wanted to do … take Zooey for a final walk in one of her favorite parks.

Around 3PM we drove to Battle Creek Regional Park. Dogs can run off-leash on wooded trails and across open fields in this park, so we’ve visited and hiked these paths countless times over the years.

When we arrived, the sun was shining, the sky was a brilliant blue and the park — covered in snow — was as beautiful as we’d ever seen it.

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But Zooey struggled to walk along trails she had once raced down. If we needed a final sign, this was it. Her time had come and there was nothing more we could do. After a short while we returned to the car and started to drive to the small animal hospital.

We arrived shortly thereafter and were taken to a private room with wood floors, comfortable chairs and soft blanket for Zooey to lay down on. We should pause here and say how thankful we were for all the people at the University of Minnesota’s Small Animal Hospital. Everyone from the front desk staff to the lead veterinarian treated us with the utmost care and respect — that day and throughout the entire past few months.

Once in the room, we were given time alone with Zooey to say final goodbyes. I can hardly describe how difficult this was. The one good thing is that Zooey was still being Zooey — sniffing around the room and sticking her nose in the garbage pail.

Once we gave the go ahead, one of the vet techs took her away for a few minutes to insert a small catheter into her leg. This helps assist with the process.

Zooey then returned and we were given more alone time. After awhile, we pushed the small buzzer on the wall and the lead veterinarian arrived.

When we were ready, she inserted the first solution into the catheter. This caused Zooey to fall asleep quickly. Then she inserted the second solution and Zooey’s heart stopped almost instantly. The whole thing seemed to happen in less than 30 seconds.

I was shocked by the suddenness of it. The doctor quickly stepped out of the room to give us privacy and Veronika and I were left with Zooey and tears streaming down our faces. I remember both us of saying how much we loved her and then I leaned over, and through the tears, whispered, “I’m so sorry Zooey. I did everything I could to save you.” Together we pet her soft fur and held her one last time.

After a few more moments, we asked for the vet technician to return. Together we lifted Zooey’s body up and then she took her away to be placed in a small casket for us to transport her to Pets Remembered Cremation.

Like so many times before, Veronika and I drove though the darkness with Zooey in the back of the car. Although this time she wasn’t bouncing around and staring out the window looking for another dog or passing squirrel to bark at. All I remember is silence.

—–

One of the hardest parts of losing a pet is coming home.

As soon as we stepped in the door, I was hit with a wave of emotion. Everywhere I look there’s something to remind me of Zooey — her water dish by the door, her blanket on the couch, her running gear and winter booties in the front closet.

And everything you’ve known for all those years changes, too. It’s habit to not leave food or tissues on the counter because Zooey will snap them up. Or to close doors so she doesn’t rummage around in a garbage can or chew on a sock. To lay out her “dog blanket” on our bed in the morning. She’s no longer there to let outside or take for a walk. And she doesn’t come running when I open the cereal box late at night. In an instance, everything changes and life is thrown upside down.

All day the lyrics from the song “Landslide” have been running through my head:

And can I sail through the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Oh oh I don’t know, oh I don’t know
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know what comes next. For the first time in fifteen years, we’re waking up without a dog in the house.

I keep thinking Zooey is still sleeping in her crate and will come running into the kitchen at any moment.

But for now, there’s only silence where there was up until recently so much activity.

Zooey came into our lives as a rescue dog with a blue blanket and not much more. She was our much beloved “trouble dog” with an abundance of positive energy and personality. Yesterday, on a gorgeous sunny day, after all these years, she was cremated with her same raggedy blue blanket wrapped around her. As we ponder how to deal with the days ahead, we take comfort in thinking somehow we came full circle.

Goodbye, dear Zooey. We’ll never forget you.

(Zooey, June 11, 2003 to January 2, 2016)

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7 things you might not realize when you get a dog

2 Jan

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the things I’ve learned from our two dogs over the past 14 years. Some of this should have been obvious while other tidbits came as a surprise. So, here’s my list of 7 things you might not realize when you get a new puppy or dog.

1) Prepare to be followed. If you walk around the house, the dog is most likely to follow you. If you lay down, the dog will probably lay down. If you go outside … OK, you get the picture.

2) Get ready to pick up a lot of poop. And barf. And that half-chewed stick the dog just spit up on the living room rug. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. Someday you might even miss doing it.

3) The dog is going to drive you crazy. They’ll bark to go out and then turn around and bark to come back in. They won’t come back in the house when they know you’re running late to that 9AM meeting at work. They’ll try to eat things they’re not supposed to like socks, rabbit turds, dead squirrels, etc. They’ll constantly nudge you when you’re working on the computer. But you’ll miss these moments someday, too.

4) You’re going to spend a lot of money. We’ve easily spent tens of thousands over the years on vet bills, food, crates (yes, plural for one dog), rawhide, treats, leashes, more rawhide, collars, registrations, even more rawhide … Easily the best money we’ve ever spent.

5) You’re going to love them like a member of the family. Maybe more so, if that’s possible.

6) You’re going to change your schedule to fit their schedule. You’ll leave parties early to “let the dog out.” You’ll adjust your vacations to be away from them as little as possible. You’ll flex your work schedule so they don’t have to be home alone for more than X hours (you’ll come to learn this magic number from experience).

7) Saying goodbye to them will be one of the hardest things you ever do. Ever.

Which brings me to today.

We were planning on bringing Zooey in to the vet to say goodbye tomorrow afternoon, but when we woke up today, we noticed that her condition had taken a turn for the worse. There’s more fluid build-up outside her abdomen and her breathing has become more labored. Waiting until tomorrow doesn’t seem fair to her, so we’ve made the incredibly painful decision to schedule an appointment for this afternoon.

My heart is feeling completely broken.

p.s. As I type this, Zooey is laying on the floor right next to my chair. Right up until the very end she doesn’t want to leave my side …

Counting the days

29 Dec

Well, this sucks.

I’m not going to sugarcoat tonight’s post. Right now is a pretty crappy time.

For the past three months we’ve been taking Zooey to the cardiology vets at the University of Minnesota to have fluid withdrawn from her abdomen (the fluid builds up because of the heart-based cancer tumor and presses on her lungs, thus causing difficulty breathing). The vets have been amazing, but the fluid taps are becoming more frequent and harder to do. Oh, and fluid is also starting to pool in her skin outside her abdomen causing swelling.

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So now we’re left with a decision: keep doing the taps or decide the end has come.

Based on my earlier paragraph, you might think the answer is obvious, but it isn’t.

You see, each time we do the tap, Zooey is like normal — eating her food, going for long hikes in the woods, chewing her rawhide bone, etc. The old saying — “You’ll now it’s time when she has more bad days than good” — just doesn’t apply. She still has more good days than bad.

But there is some bad. For example, she’s still losing weight despite having a “normal” appetite. Closer to “tap days” her breathing becomes more labored. And there’s that fluid build-up outside the abdomen I just mentioned. But other than that, she’s still mentally strong and not showing signs of being in any sort of pain.

So that leaves us with the terrible decision of having to decide when to put her to sleep.

At this point we’ve decided that day is Saturday — four nights and three days from now.

We could go on, but for how much longer? Do we give up now while she’s doing well or wait for her to be miserable? Are we just postponing the inevitable for her and us if we wait?

This is one of the worst decisions I’ve ever had to make. Maybe the worst ever. With our last dog Jasper, it was obvious that the end had come. With her, it’s not obvious at all.

What does this feel like? I don’t even like to step on a bug and now I’m being asked to make a decision that will end my best friend’s life. Too dramatic? Sorry, but that’s what it feels like.

Fortunately Veronika and I are making this decision together. I hope that we’ll find some measure of peace and clarity before Saturday. And if that is the day to say goodbye, that we’ll do so knowing we’ve done all we can and given Zooey the best life possible.

Is there a good day to say goodbye?

29 Oct

October 29, 2015 — Wow, the last post below was from 2011. Amazing how the years pass.

For a long time now this site has sat idle. I’ve thought about taking it down, but for some reason I just let it float out across the Web. Now I know why. The story wasn’t over.

In 2010 this started out as a blog about Jasper and his cancer diagnosis. But there were always two Vizslas in our lives. There was Zooey, too.

Now over 12-years old, she is still with us, but not for much longer.

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You see, back in mid-September Zooey was diagnosed with a rare heart-based cancer tumor. We first noticed she was having trouble breathing, so we took her in to see our regular veterinarian at Como Park Animal Hospital. They did a few tests and a chest scan and immediately sent us over the University of Minnesota Small Animal Hospital. That’s when my heart dropped and I was transported back to 2009-10 and the ordeal we endured with Jasper’s cancer.

My wife and I know we’ve had a great life together with Zooey, but she’s always been so healthy. We thought she’d live at least another couple years, so needless to say this has been a huge shock.

The tumor itself isn’t causing Zooey pain, but what happens is it causes fluid to build up in her abdomen and press on the outside of her lungs which restricts breathing. Each time this has happened — four times now — we’ve taken her in and had the fluid pumped out. And the amount of fluid is amazing — sometimes up to 3/4 of a gallon! It’s a pretty straightforward procedure and each time when she’s done, Zooey charges out of the hospital. Afterwards she has a few good days and then a slow decline until we’re back for another procedure.

The unfortunate part is the time between chest pumps is decreasing, meaning that the end is drawing near.

With Jasper, it was easier (never “easy”) knowing it was time. He almost stopping eating completely and wouldn’t get up any more. It was clear that he was ready to say goodbye.

With Zooey I think it will be a much harder decision. Like I said, after each vet visit she slows down a little but still likes going for hikes, exploring the beach along the Mississippi River and chewing her nylabones. But she’s getting more and more tired. And food, well, that’s becoming an almost-daily challenge.

All of this is leading to a decision no pet parent wants to make: Is it time?

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During situations like this, weird thoughts cross your mind. While walking her back to the car from the vet today I was thinking, “Will it be better to say goodbye on the weekend and have quiet time to grieve a little or on a weekday after a beautiful weekend?” Strange.

Just typing those words causes tears in my eyes. I’m not ready to lose another best friend. My hiking buddy. My TV-watching companion. I can’t imagine looking in the rear view mirror and not seeing her happily panting away while we head out on our next adventure.

When Jasper passed away, we were devastated, but we came home to Zooey. Now the house will feel so painfully empty. For the first time in over 14 years we won’t be sharing our home with another creature.

I think that’s when it’s really going to hit me.

For now, I’m going to go pet Zooey while I can and hold on to the moment just a little longer.

Jasper’s Final Days

2 Oct

(Veronika writing tonight)

I had a comforting thought today… If I write about this moment, it will last forever.

In this moment, Jasper is still with us. He is laying on his side in his crate in the living room with a light blue towel over him to keep him warm. The soft-ball sized cancer tumor on his side is making the towel stick up. As he has been doing for most of the time lately, he is sleeping… but, Jasper is still breathing and he is still with us. We can lie down next to him on the living room rug and caress his head gently and speak to him. We can watch him breathe. Sometimes, we can catch his eye. Sometimes, we notice him gazing at us as we walk by. His eyes are glassy and watery from the pain medication he is taking. He is definitely tired, but he is still with us.

This weekend is probably the single most beautiful weekend of the year in the Twin Cities. The first weekend in October is when the marathon takes place, because the fall colors are usually at their peak and the trees are glowing in yellow, red and orange in the sun. This weekend is no exception.

Thursday afternoon was when I first noticed something had changed. Jasper did not want to get up and seemed to have trouble breathing. When Todd came home, Jasper wagged his tail in his crate, but wouldn’t get up. Things were taking a turn for the worse. The next day, Todd decided to work from home. He called me mid-morning and asked me to come home. Contrary to other times when Jasper wasn’t feeling well, but later bounced back, we knew that this time was different. He had stopped eating, seemed much more tired and in much more pain than at any other time before.

Not knowing if Friday would be his last day, we decided to take Jasper to the St. Croix River. Todd and I had agreed a while back that one of the signs that would help us determine if it was truly time to let Jasper go was if he no longer showed an interest in water… We placed comfortable cushions in the car and took Jasper for a ride. The river was overflowing, but we managed to find a perfect stretch of beach where we could take him down to the water. He was excited as ever, pulled his way down to the water and played with delight (albeit on somewhat wobbly legs) in the water. It turns out that there is no such thing as ‘clear signs.’

After the beach, we didn’t want to go home, so we kept on driving along the river. We made a few stops along the way. Jasper looked out the window and kept his watery eyes open the whole time.

He always did enjoy riding in the car and watching the world go by. Sometimes, just gazing at the sky seemed to give him pleasure. Jasper has always had a fascination with clouds. I remember one of the very first days after we had brought him home as a puppy, he was laying in the grass in the backyard chewing on a stick when he suddenly stopped. It was as though he had noticed the sky for the very first time. Jasper spent a long time (especially for a puppy with a short attention-span) just observing the white clouds passing by against the blue sky.

Another moment that has stuck with me is the first time Jasper went swimming. Todd may have written about the occasion already, but I have the most vivid memories of that day. For most of his young life up until that point, we had tried to gently coax him to step into the river without much success. Then one day, when Jasper was perhaps 8-9 months old, we were walking in the Minnehaha dog park when we got to the beach. It was a windy day and I remember waves breaking against the shore. Jasper went into the water and was caught by surprise when he suddenly realized that he was swimming. He had a panicked expression as he scrambled to get back to shore. He took one look at us… and after a brief pause, his expression turned to sheer excitement! He ran straight back into the water and went for another swim… (and then another one)

This Saturday morning was absolutely beautiful. Todd and I got up a little earlier than we usually do on the weekend, and got Jasper ready for another ride. This time we didn’t travel as far. We wanted to take Jasper one last time to his favorite park – the Minnehaha dog park along the Mississippi River. As we got him out of the car, the air was a little cool, and Jasper was shaking a bit, either from the pain or the cold or both. We walked into the park slowly and let Jasper set the pace. When we passed other dogs, it was as though they understood that Jasper was on a special journey today. They were curious and smelled him, but kept a respectful distance.

The park was beautiful as the sun was shining through the leaves above. The river was overflowing so we didn’t spend much time by the water. Instead, we walked down other well-worn paths that all three of us know so well. At one point, we met a young male Vizsla. The strange dog was bouncy and happy to be in the park. He wagged his tale profusely as he greeted Jasper. He reminded us so much of Jasper when he was young. It was a beautiful moment of coming full circle.

Like the tales of a Native American preparing for his final journey, Jasper walked with slow determination in the park with us. On occasion, he would glance up at Todd, as he always did. On occasion, he would lead the way, as we got close to the water. When we stopped and sat down for a few moments on a fallen tree, Jasper would come up and rub his head against our legs, and give us gentle hugs, as he always has. It was as though all three of us knew that this would be our last trip to the park together, and we cherished every moment on our walk.

Unless Jasper does not wake up in the morning, tomorrow we have to make the decision about letting him go. No matter how much you try to mentally prepare for something like this, it is not an easy decision. Todd and I have gone back and forth on it all day today. On the one hand, as recently as Friday, Jasper showed an interest in water. On the other hand, he is clearly tired, uncomfortable while standing and walking, and not eating much of anything. What ultimately will help us make the decision tomorrow is the realization that we are not the ones to end his life. Cancer pulled the trigger a long time ago. While we can never know how long Jasper would have lived beyond tomorrow, it is clear to us that it would have only been a matter of time.

One thing is for sure. Jasper never stopped loving water – and the only thing we could get him to eat on his final days was peanut butter. Some things never change.

With much love,

Veronika

Take a breath

28 Sep

I’ve been thinking all week about Eva Markvoort.

Eva was a beautiful young woman who lived in Vancouver, Canada. She also suffered from a horrible disease – cystic fibrosis.

I’ve never told anyone this before, but Eva’s blog “65 Red Roses” inspired me to start “The Adventures of Jumping Jasper-Roo.” You see, she wrote about the day-to-day struggles of living with cystic fibrosis and made it OK to share your thoughts with the world as death crept closer.


Photo: Eva (from her blog “65 Red Roses”)

One entry of hers really stuck with me. Five days before her death while lying in a hospital bed she wrote:

“making the effort this evening to sit up in a chair
good to change positions
stretch different muscles
sending air to different pockets
mum asked what i miss?

i miss walking in and out of buildings
the feeling of air pressure change when you enter or exit a building
i miss getting in and out of cars
how your view changes when you sit at a different height
change really
i miss change…

hours of gasping for breath
waves of nausea lulling out into
hours of sleepiness once the meds have hit
leaving me daydreaming about stepping out of this room
just getting up
free of tubes and plugs
and walking out the door
pushing open doorways
skipping down the street
breathing free
free”

It still brings tears to my eyes reading that today. I’m struck by the last part where she writes about simply walking out the door and breathing in the air. No cares. No worries. How often do we take the simple things in life like that for granted?

I’ve been thinking about Eva and this passage all week because Jasper’s circle is getting smaller and smaller and the outings shorter and shorter.

He used to play in the backyard and then sleep outside in the sun for hours on end. Now he just takes a few steps outside, does his business and walks right back in. We did take a nice walk around the neighborhood tonight that he seemed to enjoy, but mostly he’s just sleeping now. I sense the desire to keep up the fight is starting to slip away. I’m really sad to say that maybe it is for me, too.

My sister suggested I take a photo of J and his tumor so other who are reading this and are in a similar situation can see what we’re going through.

I can’t bring myself to do it.

Jasper was always such a gorgeous dog. In the dog park people would often come up to me and comment on how beautiful he was. Now it breaks my heart to see him being disfigured by this awful disease.

I will say, though, that the tumor started small and grew fast over time. In June it was the size of a golf ball, now the dimension is closer to a softball. The doctor said he’s seen dogs with tumors twice this size, but that’s hard for me to imagine.

Oh, and the skin covering the tumor has now started to bruise and crack and peel. The smell is also pretty bad, so I’ve moved Jasper’s crate from the bedroom to the living room. On top of all this, he’s now wearing an e-collar nearly 24-7 to keep from licking it and making it worse.

This is the part of dealing with cancer that really starts to break your heart. Seeing an animal (or person) you love in decline. The nausea, the loss of appetite, the weight falling away.

I keep asking myself if the time has come to say good-bye, but then I’m reminded of days like Sunday. I took Jasper to one of his favorite beaches on the St. Croix River and he was swimming and chasing rocks just like the old days, albeit a little slower this time.

So on we go. Trying to take it one day at a time. And trying to remember that we’re fortunate to be able to still walk outside and breathe the air, even if the walk is a little shorter and the pace a little slower.

Questions I Stopped Asking

5 Sep

I’m sitting down to type tonight while U2 plays on the stereo in the background.

“Hold me now, oh hold me now
Till this hour has gone around
And I’m gone on the rising tide…”

Just about a year ago, Veronika and I were traveling through the desert Southwest on our way to see U2 in Las Vegas. During the first five days of the trip I was a bundle of nerves as we anxiously waited for the results from Jasper’s first needle biopsy.

Outside the entrance to the Grand Canyon, we received a call from our vet. “Inconclusive.” I remember thinking, “Well, that’s better than ‘conclusive’.” On we drove… Veronika, me and my worries.

Grand Canyon
Photo: Calm on the outside. Stormy on the inside.

You see, I’ve always been a worrier. I mean a hardcore, teeth-grinding, stomach-churning kind of worrier. So, I was surprised – shocked actually – to realize that there were things I recently stopped fretting over. Questions I’ve stopped asking. Such as…

Question 1: Why did this happen to our dog?

This was one of the first questions I kept asking myself. Probably asked this question over a thousand times. After a while acceptance starts to creep in, and then you switch to survival mode. Thankfully Jasper has been up for the fight. For a shy and reserved dog, he is stronger than I could have imagined. We’ll keep going as long as he wants.

Question 2: Was it something we did?

The food we fed him? The city where we live? The water he drank? This one can really drive a person crazy because there’s just no way of knowing. Could be genetics or the environment or a combination or something else. That’s the bitch about cancer. A lot of times you just don’t know what causes it. There’s nothing I can do to change that.

Question 3: How much time does he have left?

One of the vets gave him one to six months to live. That was two and half months ago. We asked another one of our vets the same question two weeks ago. He responded, “Could be weeks or months. It’s hard to know because there are so many variables.”

The last three weeks have been great, though. If it wasn’t for the tumor on his side, you’d think he was a normal dog. Playing, swimming in the river and jumping on the bed.

I’m learning to live in the moment more and more each day. This morning I took J out to swim in the St. Croix River. The temperature was perfect. The setting was perfect. The moment was perfect. I remember thinking to myself, “There’s no place I’d rather be than right here right now.” A second later, I looked up and saw a bald eagle land on a tree branch thirty feet above us. Was it a sign? I don’t know, but it made the moment even more special.

Question 4: Why doesn’t Jasper get to live to be an old dog?

I don’t know why, but I always hoped Jasper would live to be at least 10 years old. He just turned 9. I don’t know what’s so special about 10. I must have read somewhere that the Vizsla’s average lifespan is ten to twelve.

Now when I catch this thought creeping into my head, I’m reminded of one of my best friends. His beloved black lab passed away at the age of three. I’m sure he would’ve given the world for six more years together.

Question 5: How much have we spent on Jasper’s care?

I made the mistake of asking the cashier at the University of Minnesota Small Animal Hospital this question the other day, and the answer was double what I expected.

That’s when I realized it really didn’t matter because we would have spent double that to help J.

It made me sad, though, knowing there are families and individuals out there who can’t afford cancer treatment for their pets. Just breaks my heart, but I’m starting to form a plan in my head to help others in the future. More on that later.

To end on a positive note, this has been a great weekend with the dogs. Hiking off-leash in Battle Creek Park with both dogs on Friday, going for a run with Zooey on Saturday and taking Jasper out to swim in the St. Croix River today. I wish every weekend could be this great, but right now I’m not thinking about the future or the past. I’m just sitting here listening to my favorite band – and the sound of two snoring dogs – with a smile on my face. Perfect.