Guest Column – By Dave Burton
It started as just another morning last October. Rocky walked over, sat down and started staring at me impatiently. I was to start petting him until he indicated it should come to a stop or whenever my hand got tired, whichever came first.
As I put the coffee cup down and set the newspaper aside, I looked at him. I looked again. There it was, his right eye was a cloudy white. No warning, it had happened overnight. I yelled to my wife, “I think we might have a big problem here.”
Thus began our long and difficult journey.
Rocky is our sixth golden retriever, along with a few mixed breed dogs, that needed a home. Each has been wonderfully distinct and we’ve loved them all. But Rocky has stood out since the day we got him as an 8-week-old puppy in 2004 – the same year his dad won the Best of Breed at Westminster Dog Show. My cousin, a professional handler who showed his dad in the ring, gave him to me after I lost my last one to cancer and swore I’d never have another one and face the pain again.
We got into our veterinarian’s office that afternoon. I could sense concern, but the vet hoped it was a treatable eye infection. So, we treated him with drops and antibiotics. Things didn’t improve.
When I took him in for a recheck, the now more concerned vet referred us to MedVet in Worthington.
We arranged an appointment to meet with the specialist. Then the first bombshell hit. “Well, he’s blind in his right eye. He’ll never get his sight back. It needs to come out, a surgery called enucleation, and then we’ll also need to do a biopsy.”
The thought of the surgery with that ominous name was devastating. How could this happen so fast? I felt so sorry for him. I left feeling numb.
The surgery was not for the queasy. But, it went well and the doctor had high hopes the biopsy results would be negative for cancer. We anxiously awaited the results while Rocky recovered from his surgery. The phone rang a few days later, the afternoon before Thanksgiving. “Rocky has cancer.”
We were referred to the oncology section of MedVet. Rocky had a form of lymphoma, one of the worst forms of cancer and one all too familiar to golden retrievers.
Our options were spelled out. We could do nothing and he’d be gone within a month or two, or we could do chemo and maybe gain a year or two, sometimes more. Oh yes, or we could just say our goodbyes right away. That one we dismissed. So the difficult decision process awaited us.
I did a lot of research. We discussed the finances, his age, ethical concerns, and most importantly, we discussed Rocky’s quality of living.
I remembered my first golden that died from cancer many years ago in the downstairs hallway, his head on my lap at 4 a.m. as we lay together and he struggled to hold on, yet kept slipping. I whispered to him, “it’s ok Sam, you can go, I’ll see you again someday,” then listened as he gave a big huff and became silent as the tears filled my eyes. I remembered my other goldens, they too with cancer, and how the vet administered that ultimate pain easing needle leaving my world in shambles each time.
We decided cancer couldn’t have Rocky just yet. This time we were going to fight it. He’ll probably be my last dog and I wasn’t going to say goodbye so easily.
The chemo regimen consisted of once a week for eight weeks, then once every two weeks for another eight treatments. The treatments were a cycle of drugs geared for specific areas. We all learned and adjusted to keep Rocky as comfortable as possible.
Rocky was a trooper. He’d lose his appetite, maybe become a bit lethargic the day after the treatments, but we enticed him with chicken and other goodies and they dispensed medicines to help. We all handled it better as time went on and he really did great.
Amazingly, Rocky would be excited to go there each time to see his buddies and it was always funny when he’d come flying out the door when finished with tail flapping and the vet tech hanging on to the leash as though on water skis, he’d run up to us as if to say, “well, here I am, let’s go home, it’s nap time.” He got to know everyone there, including the other dogs that were also fighting cancer as well as their owners who were as stressed out as we were.
There was a feeling of mutual respect and admiration in that building.
Rocky graduated from chemo at the end of May.
We’re now taking each day as it comes under no false pretenses, yet with a feeling of contentment that we made the right decision. We realize we probably won just one skirmish in a much larger battle and we’ve probably only set ourselves up for a much larger fall.
His hair is quickly growing back from the shaved blood sample and ultrasound areas. It’s becoming a gorgeous coat once again. He’s happier than ever and bouncing around like a young dog.
Rocky goes for walks almost every day. He’s often greeted along the way, sometimes by people I don’t even know, who ask how his cancer is. I’ve never had a dog so many people know, love and comment on.
Each evening he’s greeted by Rosa Lee at the retirement home. She comes out in her wheelchair to greet him with a big smile. He sees her waiting and drags me down the street with his tail wagging until we reach her and she hands him a cookie and gives him a hug. He proudly sits next to her while she pets him. It’s apparent it’s one of the highlights of the day for both. That alone to me says we made the right decision.
His new aye matey pirate look stands out and brings oohs and awes from passersby. The kids cringe and ask where his eye is and what happened to it.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride of emotions that many wouldn’t have taken. “Oh, he’s just a dog.” I respect that, he’s just so much more to us. We’re cherishing every moment we’ve been granted and shared in his courageous battle. We’re so happy we learned there are now alternatives, something I wanted to share with you.
Dave Burton lives in Grove City with his family, which includes Rocky the golden retriever.