Hemangiosarcoma is a form of cancer fairly common to certain breeds of dogs, including Labrador Retrievers. Typically it occurs in middle-aged dogs and older. It’s an aggressive cancer that involves the blood vessels and most commonly manifests itself in the spleen. By the time it is detected it’s nearly always too late due to the rapid rate at which it metastasizes. I’ve learned more about this horrible form of cancer in the last month and a half than I never wanted to know. Frankly, I wish I’d never heard of the disease before.
My dog, Eddie, is a chocolate Lab. His whelp day was March 8, 2006; which makes him 8, approaching 9, at the time of this writing. We first started noticing a change in Ed’s behavior on December 8th. He acted like he didn’t feel too good—as if he’d eaten something that didn’t agree with him. We just assumed he had gotten into something he shouldn’t have gotten into because he’s been a notorious garbage gut since he was a 6 week old pup. But he was drinking water and passing stools so I wasn’t concerned about an obstruction. I was concerned because his appetite was suppressed—he wasn’t interested in his kibble. Labs are always hungry. Eddie is always interested in his kibble. For him to not be meant something was wrong. He did eat some boiled chicken breast, but wouldn’t touch his regular food for a day or so.
Gradually he began to feel better, and after a couple days he was back to his normal routine of going on daily walks with me. But after these walks he would appear tired; more so than normal. These tired spells—during which he appeared somewhat unresponsive—wouldn’t last too long, though. He would snap out of it after a while. His belly seemed a bit distended, too, but it was hard to be too concerned about it because he’s a big boy and is prone to packing on a few extra lbs each winter. He’s very tall and long for a Lab, not stocky, so with his frame he can carry a few extra pounds before it becomes too obvious. I was always conscious of his hips, and as he got older I tried to keep his weight around 100 lbs so as not to put any extra stress on his body.
After being out of town for a couple days I returned home and Eddie continued to show signs of abnormal behavior. His appetite was inconsistent and his stools were a bit soft. From time to time he would grow weak, and although he was awake he appeared almost unresponsive—his head hung low and eyes glazed over. And then he would be fine. I decided it wasn’t just a passing bug so I made an appointment at the local veterinary office for Monday, December 15th.
When the vet weighed Eddie I was a bit shocked—107.3! That was higher than I expected by at least 5 pounds anyway. He was running a temperature and his pulse rate was elevated. Well, considering he shakes and shimmies and absolutely becomes a nervous wreck at the vet, I figured elevated vitals were to be expected. He was x-rayed for an obstruction but it turned out negative. Still, he acted like his digestive system was out of whack. Blood work revealed that he was also slightly anemic; his red blood count was down a bit, but there didn’t appear to be any immediate concern about that. We went on our way with a mild antibiotic to ward off any infection that might be causing the elevated temperature. Eddie was always glad to leave the vet’s office and he had a skip in his step as we did. I should note that he appeared to be his same old self that entire day, and the next day he was hungry for his breakfast chow and acted just like the old Eddie. We went for a good 2 mile walk that afternoon, after which he took a nap like he always does.
At 9pm that night (December 16th) Eddie lapsed into that semi-unresponsive, weakened state and remained that way throughout the night. I slept on the couch in the family room, next to his bed so that I could keep an eye on him if he should become somehow distressed during the night. The next morning he remained the same so I called the vet’s office. Unfortunately the entire staff, including the doctor, were sick with the seasonal crud so they referred me to an emergency veterinary hospital a few miles away. We arrived there at 9:30 AM, by which time Eddie’s files and films had already been sent over by his regular vet’s office. Eddie was not shivering or shaking like he did every other time he’d gone to the vet. In fact, he was remarkably calm as he walked in laid down on the floor. He was miserable and I could see it in his eyes: he knew that I’d brought him to this place to help him.
The first thing the ER vet did was take Eddie’s temperature and pulse. Temp was still high, but down from the day before. His pulse was still elevated and his gums were still pale. The first test was a stool sample to rule out an intestinal parasite. That would have been too good to be true but I was hopeful—after all, he’d been to the boarding facility over Thanksgiving so the chances that he may have picked up something there seemed not out of the question. When the test came back negative I could sense that the doc knew what it likely was. When he mentioned ‘splenic mass’ my stomach jumped into my throat. “Mass” is not a word one wants to hear any time one is sitting in front of a doctor. An ultrasound was next and I was told it would take a few minutes to prep Eddie for that. When they finally called me back into the room there was my big guy, looking very comfortable (thanks to the pain pills they’d given him to help him relax) laying on his back in a foam cradle, legs splayed like a frog. His belly was shaved and covered in jelly. The vet moved a “mouse” around on Eddie’s abdomen just the way the doctor had done on Mrs. UA’s belly when she was pregnant with our two kids. He showed me one edge of Eddie’s spleen, describing that the nice clean edge is what we want to see. But as he moused to the right the spleen became less defined to the point where I didn’t know what I was looking at. The Doc noted that it was an indication of a sizeable mass. The black areas which seemed to dominate the screen indicated blood. This mass on Eddie’s spleen was bleeding into his abdomen. That accounted for his pale gums and enemia. It explained his bouts of weakness: when he had a bleeding episode he grew weak. Then the bleed would clot and he’d feel better. Gradually over the days the bleeding became more prominent and prolonged. He would need surgery immediately, I was told. The vet also said, “But before do that I want to take an x-ray of his chest to look for signs of tumors in his lungs. If we find that, there’s no point in performing the surgery.” It would be another nerve-wracking 15 minutes of waiting before I heard the “good” news: no sign of tumors in his lungs. They would prepare Eddie for emergency surgery to remove his spleen. I went home and waited for the call, which came three hours later.
The good news was that Eddie came through the surgery “pretty well”. He had lost a lot of blood—in fact, they pumped nearly 3 liters of blood from his abdomen—no wonder his belly was distended, he was acting weak, and he was so heavy! His red blood count had been low before surgery and the Doc said he expected it to drop to an even lower level. As long as it held there he’d be fine. The doctor would be monitoring Eddie through the night but for now he was resting comfortably and on plenty of good drugs to keep him quiet. The vet also mentioned that while he was removing the spleen he did not see any obvious signs of tumors elsewhere. This was good news, but I understood that it did not in any way mean that the cancer hadn’t already spread. There was just no visible indication of it having done so. I latched onto that thread of hope.
Those of us who are owned by dogs know they’re not going to live long enough—there’s no such thing as long enough—and when our canine companions reach a certain age we cannot help but acknowledge that they have fewer years ahead than they do behind them. Following the diagnosis and surgery it was particularly hard for us knowing that Eddie’s time was limited.
Eddie came home the day after surgery, on December 18th. In the days that followed, he healed nicely and gradually got his energy back. By December 23rd he seemed to be 100% of his old self. Our Christmas gift was that, except for his shaved belly and long incision, you couldn’t tell Eddie had just had major surgery: Appetite, check. Enthusiasm, check. Stamina? Well, we had to gradually work up to our normal daily walking distances but he was eager to get out of the house each day. During this post-op period it was hard to look Eddie in the eyes and hide my inner sadness, knowing that sooner or later—hopefully later—this cancer would once again rear its ugly head.
On December 29th we had a follow-up visit with Eddie’s regular veterinarian and everything looked good. His red count was a little lower than normal but it appeared to be coming back nicely—the bone marrow doesn’t replenish the lost red cells overnight. We would follow up again in a couple of weeks to make sure the numbers were normal, but for now we were assured that he was doing very well. At this time we were also given the name of a veterinary oncologist who would be able to provide us with a better idea of what to expect going forward, long term. I would make that appointment after our week-long family (sans Eddie) vacation.
When we returned home from vacation on January 14th our big brown guy looked great. He was the only reason we were glad to be back home after a week in the sunshine of Maui. I scheduled a consultation with the oncologist for January 28th, and with each day that passed Eddie seemed as fit as he’d ever been. We walked daily, sometimes twice when the weather beckoned. I thought a lot about the oncologist meeting during these walks: I had a lot of questions for them. I didn’t expect the oncologist to be able to give us an exact answer but I hoped they’d be able to give us an indication as to whether it would be 3 months or a year, or…?
We never made it to that consultation.
On Friday January 23rd Mrs. UA and I set out with Eddie for our morning walk. We got as far as a couple hundred yards down the road when it became clear that Eddie wasn’t feeling very well. There was no skip in his step and his eyes told us he was uncomfortable. He’d also been slow to eat his breakfast that morning. We turned around and walked slowly home. As much as we hoped it might be something else there was no denying the familiar symptoms. During the day his belly had begun to appear more and more distended, again. When he refused his afternoon kibble, I called the veterinarian. We arrived at the clinic and were quickly admitted to an exam room where the doc drew blood and ran an analysis. Eddie was anemic. Again. There was blood in his abdomen. Again. Without an ultrasound or surgery to confirm, there was no way to know for sure the source of the bleeding. Probably a tumor on his liver. Damnit, hemangiosarcoma moves fast. Everyting was happening too fast—I just wanted to take Eddie home. I also wanted to make sure he was comfortable so we were sent home with 24 hours worth of pain relievers. The rest of that afternoon and evening were torturous for my family, and while Eddie could sense something wasn’t quite right, he gladly accepted a few extra treats and many offerings of usually forbidden foodstuffs. Time passes so slowly once you’ve made the decision that nobody ever wants to make—it was a long night.
On Saturday January 24th at 1pm, after a long, quiet morning that seemed to last for eternity, we made one last visit to the veterinarian. This wasn’t my first time doing this—I’d done it twice before as an adult. And while each time had been painful, this time it hurt the most. Eddie was a big, soft-headed, sensitive, calm, gentle and kind boy. Everyone who met him loved him and generally he returned the sentiment. He had not one ounce of malice in him except perhaps when it came to coyotes, squirrels and cats, and who could fault him for that? Dogs are never with us long enough, and certainly Eddie was taken too soon. But he gave us everything he had in the 8 years and 8 months that he was ours we were his.