Canine hemangiosarcoma usually attacks the dog’s spleen but can metastasize to other organs. That, unfortunately, includes the brain.
This cancer is almost exclusive to dogs, though other species can also get it. It is a highly invasive cancer of the cells that normally create blood vessels.
This story is shared by a friend of mine who wants to remain anonymous.
I had always wanted my own dog but felt it wasn’t right to keep a big dog in an apartment. When I was 29, I was able to buy my first place in Tennessee. I wanted to rescue a dog and knew a puppy wasn’t for me because I worked full time. I researched breeds and hunted on Petfinder. Eventually, I found my dog at the Humane Society.
He lived there for almost a year since being found as a stray. He was adopted then returned for being too wild and ‘untrainable’. I came home with my 45 lb ‘full-grown’ dog who proceeded to get taller and taller and put on 20 lbs once he was out of the shelter.
A wild child
He was absolutely wild.
He ate the couch, the loveseat, the chair and a set of remote batteries that not even emergency x-rays could ever find again. We enrolled in obedience classes, found a local dog park, and got him (and me) involved in search and rescue training.
Within a couple of years, Joey had gone from a dog that tried to bite strangers to a dog that walked happily in the city’s Christmas parade and greeted guests with tail wiggles (he had a stub tail).
If you dropped something, he picked it up for you. He would close the door for you. If you were silly enough to leave his food bowl on the floor and oversleep, you wound up with that very same bowl on your head.
His favorite game was ‘find Daddy’ or the variation ‘take this to Daddy’.
If you told him “go away” he walked away if you added “no, I see you!” he would go around the corner out of sight. If told he was ‘under arrest’, he would stand against the wall or table until informed he was ‘free to go’. He learned things you made no effort to teach him. He was just always listening to what was said and trying to figure it out. Though he loved to play with my husband he was my baby. If I sat on the floor he would back up into me and plop down in my lap. Then he would literally throw himself backward so I had to catch him and hold him like a baby. Then he would just gently rest his head on my shoulder and be perfectly still. He loved being held that way.
We went on happily with Joey, from the day we got him, for almost 9 years to a day.
I first noticed that he seemed to be a little stiff on one of his legs.
He had previously sprained a back leg (he was possibly the most accident-prone dog of all time) so I watched it for a day or so.
It didn’t seem to improve and I began to worry it was dysplasia. We scheduled a vet appointment for him at the end of the week. By that Friday, however, I noticed that both the legs on his right side seemed to trouble him now.
A brain tumor?
The vet examined him and immediately concluded it was most likely a neurological problem. She called a specialist at another practice who agreed to wait for us as we raced across the Metro DC area in Friday rush hour traffic trying to get there before he closed. This was June 3, 2011.
The neurologist examined Joey and said he felt that a brain tumor was causing the problem.
He seemed fairly optimistic that it could be removed successfully and we scheduled a CAT scan for the following Monday. There is a lot more to what went on that weekend but to sum it up, Joey was in pretty poor shape by the time we got to the CAT scan location. I actually considered having them put him down then while he was under sedation and insisted on talking with his doctor by phone before I allowed the radiologist to bring him around.
The neurologist felt that the tumor was small and easily accessible and that we should attempt to remove it.
Surgery was scheduled for later that week. After the surgery (and this was the first time I had ever left my dog at a kennel or vet’s office overnight), we went to pick Joey up the next day. This was June.
The doctor reported the tumor had good margins and he felt he had gotten it all. Joey was groggy when we first got him but we could already see he was doing so much better with the pressure removed from his brain. He looked like Frankenstein with surgical staples running right across the top of his head but seemed more like his old self. By a couple of days later we had to work to keep him from playing and running around.
Things looked promising and for the week or so it took to get the biopsy back, we had hope.
Then the biopsy came back as possibly hemangiosarcoma although it looked inconclusive The doctor indicated that hemangiosarcomas rarely started in the brain and felt we should now do a sonogram of Joey’s chest and abdomen.
Sure enough, that test revealed multiple other sites of lesions.
This was the last week of June. We then got hooked up with an oncologist. She felt that chemotherapy wouldn’t hurt things and might slow the progress of the disease; this was the only option we were given because of the advanced stage of cancer.
Meanwhile, I continued to research what I could about alternative cures and tried to find a place that was doing an experimental study that might be applicable and might take my dog. Everyone was very nice. I found a study on canine brain cancer in Michigan but it was not appropriate for hemangiosarcoma.
We started chemotherapy with the agreement between us that as long as it didn’t seem to hurt him or make him feel sick, we would try it. My best friend’s wedding (in which I was a bridesmaid) was 700 miles away on July 9, 2011. Joey seemed to be tolerating the treatment well and still seemed happy with a great appetite. We decided that we would pack up both dogs and head to the wedding in Memphis so that my family could see Joey at least one more time.
At this time I was hoping to have Joey at least through the end of the year.
I had no idea if the chemo was working or not. We got through the wedding and Joey had a great time swimming in the pond near my family’s house and seeing everyone. I am SO glad he had that time because that was one of his favorite things to do. We got home on July 10, 2012. Joey was scheduled for another chemo session and we, as usual, we’re looking for a potential drop in his white blood count.
The day after the treatment, his blood test came back fine.
The next day, however, my husband came home from work early to find that Joey, who had been just fine that morning, seemed somewhat listless. I came home and he had only gotten worse.
We rushed him to our specialist’s emergency clinic and they felt he was having a reaction to the chemo, gave us some meds and sent us home.
My boss was supposed to be picking me up at 7 am the next day to leave for an extended business trip. I stayed up all night watching Joey who seemed restless and nauseated. Around 4:30 am, I checked on him again and found he was just laying on the floor of our bedroom in a puddle of what looked like clear vomit. I woke my husband and we agreed to take Joey back to the clinic again, possibly for a transfusion.
I decided I would stay home until I could call my boss and hear what the ER doc recommended.
Then once my husband called, I would decide if this was in fact just a reaction to the treatment or something more serious. I called my boss around 6 am and explained the situation. She said I had permission to stay home from the trip but would need to reimburse the office the cost of my plane ticket (which was pricey). This isn’t as mean as it sounds because we are a federally funded non-profit and have to account to the government for every penny we spend.
I decided to go with her to the airport because money was getting tight (we were after all post-flood, mid-reno and into Joey’s treatment for almost $10,000) and I wanted every dollar to be spent on Joey. Once at the airport, I talked to my husband.
The ER doc said that Joey had a lesion on his heart that was bleeding and making it hard for him to breathe. She recommended immediate euthanasia.
I wanted to wait until his regular oncologist got there (8 am). When she did, she agreed that any further treatment would just be about prolonging suffering. We had always agreed that if Joey was suffering, we would not keep him alive just for our sake.
At this point, I was at best a couple of hours away and my dog was in pain. So, I sat on the phone in the airport as my sweet husband held Joey and he was put to sleep. It was July 14, 2011. I had always been there for Joey when he got hurt (which as mentioned before was not infrequently). When he slipped on a gumball (I hate those things) in the yard and broke his toe, I slept on the couch in the basement for three weeks with him so he could go out the door with no steps. When the body checked his little sister at the dog parkway too hard and she bit him, I held him while he got four staples. I never left him at the vet and fought if they even wanted to take him away to weigh him.
I wish at the end I could have been with him.
We were so busy at that time, maybe I missed signs I should not have. My husband said to me that I was always worried Joey would get cancer. I guess that’s true since I lost a dog to cancer when I was a child. Every time poor Joey got a fatty lump or suspicious rash, I made the vet biopsy or scrape it.
But still, we were moving at that time and Joey seemed depressed or had other symptoms I didn’t see. We were in mid-renovation and had just moved into our house. We moved in on April 14th, 2011 and a week later the whole basement (where we had everything stored while they finished the renovation of the upper floors) flooded.
I think maybe if we hadn’t been distracted, I might have noticed something earlier and it might have made a difference. We were always careful with Joey’s health, kept his weight down, his teeth clean and white, and feed him what we believed was good food.
Further reading: Dr. Donna Spector podcast.