Rocky the Magnificent is a rescue dog diagnosed with canine cancer, and Mary his Army veteran who shares their story. Approximately six million dogs and a nearly equal number of cats are newly diagnosed with cancer every year.
Our thanks to Dogs On Deployment for their help in making this story – and all of its miracles – possible.
The dog with “peanut butter eyes”
The light of unconditional love in those peanut butter eyes captivated me when I first noticed him. I so needed a dog for all kinds of reasons – exercise, protection, and a different kind of energy after losing three cats to old age in August, 2013. Rocky the Magnificent (“Rocky” for short) picked me. I’m ashamed to admit I did not pick him at first.
I had criteria – was looking for a black dog since I know, as a rescuer, that black colored animals are often overlooked. I figured a dog of about 50 pounds would be good for two reasons: my home is small and full of cats and tight corners, and if I needed to carry my dog, in an emergency, I could. I felt I needed to connect with my future dog rapidly since he or she would have to then be introduced and adapt quickly to the cats in my home.
The Delaware Humane Association was my third shelter with just 45 minutes to closing time when I finally returned Rocky’s gaze, after walking three dogs who clearly did not connect with me. Rocky is a big brown bear of a dog weighing approximately 100 pounds and I was terrified to walk him. The dog manager guided me past that fear, and Rocky was amazingly gentle and stopped every few feet or so to gaze at me with love and reassurance. We walked through two runs. I then sat on a bench with him next to me, explaining how crazy my household is and asking him to please not eat my cats. He just continued to gaze at me, and I was mesmerized! The shelter was closing and I promised I’d be back the next day.
Tie a yellow ribbon
I had been following Pets for Patriots for two years on Facebook. I just loved the adoption stories! As a cold war veteran who is not disabled nor served in a war zone, I am often reticent to declare my veteran status or seek assistance from charities, so that those benefits are available for the veterans who have a greater need (i.e. disabled, war wounded). I went home and read a couple of adoption stories of veterans whose service was similar to my own (time frame, locations, etc.) and mustered up the courage to apply. I was approved in less than 24 hours! So exciting! And later, no less than a miracle.
I visited with Rocky every day until the shelter application was approved. I had to get the dog manager to measure his neck for me so I could pick up a new collar and leash, a requirement for new adoptions. The shelter approval came through within a half hour of closing time on August 9, 2013 and I broke all kinds of traffic laws to get there to spring Rocky, with his brand new red paracord collar and matching leash. I was so excited the shelter staff had to put the collar on him; my hands were shaking too hard. He climbed right into the extended cab of my truck, stuck his head out the little window in the back, and we were off for all kinds of middle-aged capers!
Pets for Patriots was incredibly supportive during the first few months. Rocky made a very smooth transition into my home and basically ignored the cats at first. A couple of the curious and more friendly ones struck up an instant friendship with him. I consulted with Ted from Pets for Patriots often during this transition time. Rocky didn’t bark for almost two weeks, but when he did it was resonant and loud and delivered a strong warning to the pizza guy (of all people).
A month into our walks, which still touting the yellow ribbon on his leash to show I was a novice with him, I fell hugely over an uneven sidewalk and just shredded my right knee. I couldn’t get up for a few minutes. Rocky immediately stood guard over me, front paws facing the road and back paws to the fence with my body in between and would not move until I was vertical again.
I removed the ribbon when we got home.
The favorite season
Rocky and I just love autumn.
We go to a park a short drive from our home, and hike through the crunchy leaves and smell the crisp air together. Rocky, with his Chesapeake Bay Retriever blood, always swims the lake no matter how cold the temperature. Then we sit together while he dries off in the sun.
The fall of 2015 should have been the perfect time for us, except that I was working for an old dinosaur of a company that was being slowly carved up and sold piece by piece by its board of directors.
Friends and coworkers were receiving their notice every month and after they left the work still needed to be done. Rocky and I had to get up earlier and earlier each week for our long morning walks to accommodate my ever increasing work load. He approached the changes with his special patient and unwavering, unconditional love. He really didn’t seem to care when or where we went as long as he was with me. He let me sob into his fur.
By the time It was my turn to be eliminated, on December 15, 2015, I was trying to do the work of four people. Rocky supported me with his happy dance when I came home and I immediately took him to the park to celebrate.
Once the weight of the dinosaur was lifted from my shoulders I really enjoyed the remainder of the holiday season, and so did Rocky. He is so proud of his red harness which I attached white faux fur to – you can see by this picture how happy he is to wear it and he was such a hit at the neighborhood parties.
We are both middle-aged, so we don’t go in for a lot of that fancy puppy trick stuff. We have one really good trick that we do every morning: I put a large dog biscuit in my mouth sideways, and he takes it from me ever so gently with his soft mouth. I get such a thrill from this trick that I catch myself smiling when I think about it during the day.
Rocky makes me feel like I am six years old again – his happy go lucky, live in the moment manner is infectious – I live to see his tail in full spin just like a helicopter. That is when I know Rocky is at his happiest and I have done my best to get him there.
Rocky stepped up as “nanny dog” for two litters of “oops babies,” and the last three seek him out almost as much as they do me.
Rocky also has a girlfriend, Amelia Earhart. Amelia was part of a litter of four from a feral momma, all of which I failed to foster by adopting.
The day when everything changed
January 15, 2016, was the day when Rocky stopped doing the trick.
He just would not take the dog biscuit, and that was the first day I really focused on him since early fall and could see that something was off with his mouth. It just didn’t look right. There seemed to be a bulge in front of his left eye. His handsome brown face wasn’t symmetrical. I ran my fingers gently under Rocky’s upper mouth flap and stopped at what should have been his carnassial tooth. I felt a huge rock hard lump.
Rocky, naturally, wasn’t receptive to a lot of investigation, so I called his veterinarian for a checkup. I really missed our morning trick and reluctantly left dog biscuits in various parts of the house for him to find on his own.
Rocky’s veterinarian, Dr. Stephanie Smalls, is very thorough, but just starting her own practice so diagnostic options are limited. She recommended a full blood panel, which came back wonderfully normal, and suggested a cracked carnassial tooth. Or, very gently, she stated it could be a tumor. She then recommended getting imaging and perhaps a biopsy.
Biopsy? Biopsy as in cancer? Wow, wasn’t really prepared for that; the hairs on the back of my neck rose up!
In situations like this, I tend to fall back into my Army training: the inherent BEST POSSIBLE OUTCOME thunders through my head. I set up a war room and war board in my bedroom. Of course, I got on the internet to research everything associated with the canine mouth – there were so many horrific possibilities and graphic images that I began to get scared.
Rocky is an older fellow, which I knew when I adopted him, but I certainly could not fathom life without him. Rocky just gets me. He has a similar personality to mine: friendly, cordial and appropriate, but he can take or leave most other dogs, as I with most people. As long as Rocky and I have each other we have more than enough great company. I even think Rocky and I look alike. We are chubby athletes with big heads, barrel chests, stunning eyes and oversized feet. We are also equally matched when it comes to stubborn, funny and smart. Rocky replaced my sister as my BFF (best friends forever).
The wondering about what was going on with Rocky drove me into insomnia.
Second opinion…and third and fourth
I went to a second veterinary clinic for what I thought would be an exam to get dental images and a biopsy, but the veterinarian, who had a lot of experience and a huge local reputation, presented a completely different diagnosis. Rocky did not have a cracked carnassial tooth, but an epulis, a benign tumor common in older male dogs. She wanted to anesthetize Rocky, remove as much of the epulis as she could, and get it biopsied at the same time.
I scheduled the surgery for the first available date, but after the most fitful of nights I cancelled it.
Something seemed off with removing a lump that size and then biopsy-ing it. If it was an epulis that treatment certainly would be appropriate, but if it were malignant would it have spread faster for having been removed? If it was one of those spidery tumors and we only removed a section of it, would the tentacles grow? Would the removal “anger” the canine cancer?
When your dog is sick you try to retain every single bit of information you possible can. I felt my head would explode some days trying to keep track of it all.
I was grateful not to be burdened with a full-time job and to have a bit of money set aside so I could be “project manager” for this odyssey. I was determined to get a proper diagnosis so we could work on treatments as soon as possible, so a third veterinary clinic exam and a wise young veterinarian produced yet a different diagnosis again. Not an epulis due to the size and location, in her opinion, but an oral cancer. She convinced me that more than imaging of Rocky’s skull was needed, that he needed a cat scan.
I spent the rest of the day calling every veterinary clinic/hospital/center to find a cat scan and all roads lead to a teaching hospital in Philadelphia.
By now Rocky was on to me that not all trips were to the park when he got into my truck. I tried to maintain at least a one-to-one ratio so that he got rewards for his exceptionally good behavior at each of the veterinarians’ offices. He continued on with his happy self, but I noticed he wasn’t wolfing down his usual kibble. Luckily, the same brand is available in smaller kibble and we switched to that. Same with his dog biscuits. I also put away his heavy duty chew toys and gave him Kong senior chews to play with.
Our first trip to the hospital wasn’t bad: a 50-minute ride in intense Philadelphia traffic followed by a three-hour meet and greet with the various students and staff. The waiting room was full of people who clearly want the best for their companion animals. Rocky was accepted as a candidate for the cat scan and biopsies the following week. The initial fee for the diagnosis was quoted at around $3,000, so I cashed out my 401K in anticipation that we would need a boatload of money.
I also used some of the money to get him in for “holistic whole body” stuff with a local specialty veterinary clinic (number four if you’re still counting): physical assessment, hydrotherapy and acupuncture to help him fight whatever was inside him.
I believe bad things can’t grow in positive environments.
Rocky is a patient soul, but most of it he did not really care for. He did not want to sit still for acupuncture. He didn’t mind the hydrotherapy since it was water, but clearly he preferred being at the park. He is overweight, but extraordinarily healthy with good joint placement and so forth.
The second visit was for the cat scan and biopsies. I know Rocky had been under anesthesia before because he was neutered when I adopted him, but it is always nerve wracking to put your companion animal under. Especially intimidating is the “if something goes wrong” tier choices on the consent form which this hospital associated with money: the greater the revival, the greater the cash. I thought that was a little mercenary on their part! I went with DNR (“Do Not Resuscitate”) because I choose DNR for me when I have surgery. I also felt Rocky would be fine, and seven hours later – which were measured in excruciatingly slow minutes – we drove home.
The devastating news: canine cancer
On Friday, March 25, 2016, I received a call with the results. Actually, it was a request to come back the following Tuesday. I agreed to the appointment, but begged for disclosure over the phone since the weekend would be even longer worrying.
Rocky’s clinician gave in – we had our diagnosis – it just wasn’t a good one.
This is an exert from the written report: “Rocky was diagnosed with fibrosarcoma and melanocytoma in the oral cavity. Due to the extent and invasiveness of the fibrosarcoma into the maxillary bone and surrounding structures, Rocky would need a very invasive surgical procedure with intention of removing the whole tumor, and even with the more extensive surgery it might be possible part of the tumor remains. He would have to recover at the ICU at least 24 hours. After the surgery, he would need to receive radiation therapy to eliminate any residual cancer cells that might have been left behind and to prevent the tumor from growing back temporarily, however the fibrosarcoma is resistant to radiotherapy (it cannot be cured).”
I could actually feel my blood turn icy in my body.
I sat down trying to process what the clinician had delivered. I named the tumor Lynda (yes, with a “y”) after my sister-in-law who invaded, took over and cut me off from another beloved being: my brother. I was determined to do the very best I could for Rocky. I took Rocky to the water all weekend so by Tuesday we could be relaxed for our appointment.
“There is no right answer here”
The treatment options were presented well, but all of them were horrific.
The most assured option for successful removal of Lynda was surgery, which would have meant the removal of the upper left half of Rocky’s skull from in back of his eye to the end of his muzzle, including his beautiful peanut butter eye, followed by several doses of radiation and separate anesthesias. The second option with lesser assurance was aggressive radiation treatments, which would mean 21 anesthesias in a row for my older overweight dog, and again, the loss of his left eye from radiation damage. Even palliative radiation meant six anesthesias one week apart and considerable damage to his left eye.
I tried so hard to hold it together for Rocky’s sake, but the tears were just streaming down my face as I spoke to the various clinicians as the students watched. Deciding which treatment to provide for your companion animal is very personal, but it really skewers every single facet of your life: personal values, emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, even moral. The one takeaway from that visit was from the radiation oncologist, who stated, “There is no right answer here.”
Lynda was growing at about the rate of one centimeter per month and because of its location, it was going to mean considerable pain and pressure to my poor boy if left untreated for much longer. The time for action was growing ever shorter.
I was pretty shaky when we left the hospital and luckily Rocky wanted a good walk, so I had a chance to pull myself together for the drive home. I waffled from rescue to recovery over the next few days – rescue as in trying to save him, recovery as in mustering the grace to prepare for his passing.
Rocky’s input mattered to me greatly, so I arranged for a wonderful animal communicator to speak for him. She conveyed that he knew what he had – images of too many edges throughout his upper jaw – and he was not afraid to diem but he wanted me to stop crying about it and to enjoy the light that we had left. He wanted me to know he sought me out because of our many past lives together. He had been my horse in battle and had died under me. He left the farm he had grown up on in lower Delaware to find me; images of “benign neglect” and no emotional connection.
Rocky was stuck outside for the summer prior to our meeting. A young couple adopted him while trying to do it all with a new baby and luckily returned him three days prior to my visit. He conveyed that once he passed out of body he would stay near me in spirit and I’d never be alone again, nor would we be restricted as to where we went, as we are by this canine corporal form and the silly laws that prevent dogs from going everywhere.
It was comforting to discover how deep and constant our connection is, and that he felt the same about me that I felt about him.
The very long goodbye
We were seriously out of options for about three weeks and I prepared, as best I could, to lose my best friend.
I made a bucket list for us and got him to the ocean for a weekend. Even though the water was way too cold to swim in, we enjoyed the salt air and communing in the solitude. I bought a beautiful urn and some huge memory foam pads for us to sleep on when the time came that he could no longer climb into his Kuranda beds, so I could hold him close and let him know I was there. I stocked up on puppy pads and cleaning supplies. I even lined up Dr. Smalls to come to my home when the time came, if necessary.
It seems maudlin, I know, but my warrior heart would not tolerate any less for him.
During one of his acupuncture sessions the doctor suggested getting a second opinion from another oncologist and to cover every base, I did that. That second opinion – the best $200 I will ever spend in my whole life – turned out to be a life saver! The one option that the teaching hospital could not offer was cyber knife treatment – targeted intense radiation – which was available through Hope Veterinary Specialists in Malvern, Pennsylvania, approximately 40 minutes away. I called Hope for details from the parking lot and grabbed the first available appointment two weeks away.
The cost was staggering for a mapping cat scan and three targeted treatments, all under anesthesia, but the end result was equivalent to the aggressive 21 radiation treatments with only four anesthesias and no loss or sustained damage to Rocky’s eye. It would have wiped out my 401K money, savings, maxed my charge cards, and had me eating Ramen noodles to swing it all by myself.
I reached out to Beth from Pets for Patriots, absolutely distraught but determined, and she really came through for me. She made a miracle – the second that week – by committing funds for the treatments, and was able to get another wonderful charity – Dogs On Deployment – to commit to half. That freed up money to keep Rocky and I going without me having to beg, borrow or steal. I did not have to reach my breaking point because of them, and was able to focus entirely on Operation Kill Lynda!
Free wifi and heartbreak
I did continue to waffle right up to Rocky’s mapping cat scan as to whether or not this was the right answer for him. I didn’t want to put him through any kind of torture if the end game was only a couple of months and his quality of life was diminished, didn’t want to be selfish, and didn’t want to potentially waste the hard found dollars of an animal charity.
This waffling was weighing heavily on me during one of our walks when we passed a local playground. A young mother with three small children approached me, asking if her children could see my dog, and was clearly teaching them to request my permission individually to pet my dog first. Rocky loves children, of course, so he was more that happy to stand there like a statue while they touched him, checked his ears, held his leash, and asked a ton of questions – including wanting details about his recent bag of poop in my hand!
The young mother said, “We see you and your dog every day – he is so beautiful! We would love to have a dog like this but really can’t afford one. Thank you so much for letting us share him and for the children to get a chance to touch his fur.”
Okay, so I get it now, this isn’t just about Rocky and me. There’s a whole community here that would have a huge hole by his absence. They may not know or remember my name, but they shout out “Rocky” when they drive by. Children need to see gentle big dogs. Unfortunately, some children in this neighborhood also need to know there are different breeds in the world than Daddy’s fight dogs.
The last half of April 2016 was like going through revolving entrance doors. I swear we got there, but I don’t remember how.
The schedule was mapping cat scan on a Tuesday, with cyber knife treatments the following Tuesday, Thursday and subsequent Tuesday; check. Rocky’s mapping cat scan; check. Beth decamped at her veterinarian’s office same day with her dog Bunny; check. First cyber knife treatment the following Tuesday; check. Long day in the waiting room. Free wifi and heartbreak. A mother rushing her dog into emergency with breathing issues and the g-force of grief on her face. A Labradoodle with severe allergies to human dander? Sawdust lunch (my absent taste buds) from local Wawa; check. A sweet dog with blood cancer and time absolutely halting as I looked at the resignation on his guardian’s face.
Rocky returned to me groggy with shaved ankles. Time halting and possibly reversing to learn that sweet Bunny, who had been full of cancer, passed only a week after her vet visit. Uncheck.
The triumph of hope over despair
Operation Kill Lynda completed with graduation day for Rocky, May 3, 2016, dressed in a cute graduation scarf and plenty of love from Team Rocky the Magnificent. We were sent home with post-procedure instructions and a profound belief in normalcy. So very grateful to all the people who helped save my boy!
A couple of weeks after Rocky’s graduation his breath did get foul. It was one of the concerns addressed in the post procedure care. I put him on antibiotics as instructed. Within five days, his breath cleared up and guess what? He started taking dog biscuits from my mouth again!
Our one month celebration of the graduation was at a local restaurant with dear friends who sent home this huge bone for Rocky. He flipped it and chewed it for hours. You would never know he had cancer! Look at him now! After the bone, a happy nap.
Rocky does have a small scar, as predicted, where the radiation was directed and the fur no longer grows on his cheek. I kiss that spot every morning and tell him 10,000 angels made that spot for us.
Of course, I continue to be a little wacky. I find myself watching Rocky closely and noting any change to any thing. I sniff his breath a couple of times a day, reduced from every hour, though. I have to go back to work full time shortly, but am searching for remote or part-time opportunities to max out our Rocky days. In the meantime, Rocky shows off his Chesapeake Bay Retriever skills.
Thank you and every blessing to you for helping save my boy!
P.S. As of this writing (July 2016) Rocky’s tumor has been seriously reduced. The canine cancer that is left on his jaw is dead or dying, and he has been cleared for follow up in four months. ~ Pets for Patriots
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