A few days after I first felt the nickel-size lump on his rib cage, the mass changed from soft and squishy to hard and firmly anchored.
The vet decided to surgically biopsy the entire lump for analysis, because the initial needle aspiration drew some blood in addition to fat cells. Some dogs develop harmless lipomas (benign fatty lumps) as they age, and at ten years old, that could’ve been the case for Malcolm.
“I have good news and bad news,” said the vet, calling me back with the pathology results. “Bad news is that it is a soft tissue sarcoma. Good news is …”
Sarcoma. My heart cannonballed straight to my stomach.
“… we can remove it, get a 3 cm margin … good prognosis … oncology consult … maybe chemotherapy or radiation …”
I was so used to hearing all the words coming from the vet, that I could’ve finished most of his sentences for him. But as I received those words, they felt less like a diagnosis, but more like a curse. How could this be happening? Why Malcolm??
In all my years of life after cancer, I never wondered nor asked why cancer was happening to me. I used to worry that I maybe missed out on a critical step in cancer patient development. But instead of wondering, ‘Why me?’ I’ve always thought, ‘Why not me?’ For whatever reason, I never got angry about having cancer. People kept telling me that I would be and should be angry, but I don’t think that I ever will get angry about the plain fact of being hit by cancer. I don’t really know who to be mad at. Caught in the storm of life-threatening illness, acceptance has kept me centered in the places where my power still rises–even through depressed times, when those places may only be tiny blips on a seemingly flat line.
But this was different. Why in the hell does Malcolm have cancer?? I was mad at me.
When the surgery was over, I was greeted by the vet and two assistants, who were eager to discharge my furry son. Apparently, before the surgery started, Malcolm escaped from the room and tried to run out the building. Then, after the surgery was finished, Malcolm bit one of the veterinary assistants in the face when she tried to pick him up, sending her to the emergency room. The vet was very understanding about it. He told me the assistant was fine and that it was her mistake. She shouldn’t have picked up Malcolm by his surgical wounds, and they were just following protocol by sending her to the emergency room.
That’s my boy! Cancer or not, he’s still got fire in his belly.
Operating room drama notwithstanding, the surgery itself was a bigger ordeal than expected. Malcolm came home rocking 33 shiny staples running along the entire length of his body, a full-body mohawk from where they shaved him for surgery, and a reverse soul-patch on his wrist from where they cleared fur for the IV line–battle scars of canine cancer.
In those first 48 hours at home, I really thought I was losing Malcolm. So much of it reminded me of the long hours that we spent curled up on the bathroom rug together when I was in the throws of harsh cancer treatments. He would stay with me on the floor by the toilet or wherever all day long, ignoring his own needs, licking the tears off my face, and pawing at me with affection when my body was racked with pain. It was my turn now to do the same for Malcolm, minus the licking.
Trained and licensed as a legit service dog, Malcolm was initially an “assistance dog” for emotional support. After my second cancer diagnosis, I trained him as a medical alert “service dog” to detect chemicals that trigger anticipatory nausea for me. When he senses these chemicals, he either paws at me to let me know, or tries to get me to leave the area if it’s pervasive. What’s more, he is the only living being that has been with me daily since my first cancer diagnosis.
He could not be carried because his wound was basically his entire body. Every step was a slow and painful effort, and he would occasionally yelp in pain. It hurt too much to lie down, so he spent most of the time standing in a drugged up coma, hallucinating and snapping at imaginary things in the air (which was actually way cute), swaying from side-to-side, and occasionally leaning against the pillows for a few minutes of upright sleeping now and then. I covered my living room floor with all the soft blankets and pillows I owned and his arsenal of plush Snoopies (his fav stuffie). We cozied up together in our den for days, during which I tried to memorize every nook and cranny of his adorableness, and regretted not having recently taken him for his favorite beach romps.
Over the course of the last three months, Malcolm has been recovering like a champ. He had a cancer scare last week when I found another lump, but it turned out to be just a ball of fat. Yay–we love fat! Malcolm’s full range of motion and personality are most definitely back, but his energy level is not quite the same. He is forever changed, and so am I.
We are now doing way more of what we both love, and seizing those precious moments when we can still fly high.
Big gigantic THANK YOU to Dr. Nassi and his outstanding team at Beverly Robertson Veterinary Clinic, and to all of my friends and relatives whose care and compassion brought us healing.