We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan. - Irving Townsend
Lexie came into my life after I received this email from an Ohio shelter’s rescue coordinator on January 2, 2007:
Snowball and Baby Girl are both eight years old. Neither one has any teeth. Snowball has an underarm tumor that needs veterinary attention. Their owner is now in a nursing home and has not been able to properly care for them for a long time. They are both in need of a grooming. Neither dog has ever been around children. If you can help with either of these two girls, please contact me immediately.
One look at the picture attached to the email and I was determined to move heaven and earth to save those little girls! They had arrived at the shelter filthy, matted, toothless and terrified. Baby Girl (now Lexie) had a crude tattoo in her ear, indicating she might have been a breeder dog in one of Ohio’s many puppy mills. Her companion’s “underarm tumor” was the size of a tangerine! Given their age, lack of socialization and deplorable physical condition, their chances of being adopted were nil. In fact, many dogs who arrive at shelters with tumors like Snowball (now Cassandra, nicknamed Sassy) had, would have been immediately euthanized.
The small dog rescue group I founded, New Beginnings Shih Tzu (& Friends) Rescue, accepted both girls into the foster program. My friend and fellow rescue volunteer Sharon Hines in Columbus coordinated the intake and temp fostered them until transport to me in Milwaukee. When they arrived, Sassy had just gone into heat, so we had to wait 8 nail-biting weeks before her tumor could be removed, and both girls spayed. Thankfully the tumor was benign. By the time these tiny diamonds in the rough blossomed into the beautiful gems I knew they were, they had totally taken up residence in my heart. In 2008 the girls and I moved to Maryland to join my fiancé, John, and Sharon adopted them for us as a wedding present. Hence they have names that weigh more than they do!
In early 2009, nearly two years to the day since Sassy’s successful mammary tumor surgery, we noticed a small hard lump on Lexie’s abdomen. Lexie was as bright-eyed, perky and happy as ever, but knowing the increased mammary cancer risks of dogs spayed later in life, we opted for surgical removal even though she was ten years old. My vet discovered two other, smaller lumps during the surgery and all were biopsied. We weren’t particularly worried as Lexie did not act sick, so the biopsy report was unexpected and totally devastating: malignant metastatic mammary cancer with lymphatic involvement. I cried for days; the very thought of this beautiful little girl’s body being invaded by such a horrible disease was just so awful.
John and I are no strangers to cancer. John’s late wife, Peggy, a passionate advocate for the animals and longtime cat rescuer, battled with cancer for four years before it extinguished her life far too young. I do senior and special needs rescue and have lost seven precious little ones to it: Harley in 2003, Lady Jane and Hiker in 2004, Tiki and JJ in 2005, Blaze in 2007 (two months after Lexie’s rescue), and Franklin in 2009 (two months after Lexie’s diagnosis). But I don’t care how many times you lose loved ones, it never gets easier. And it’s especially heartbreaking watching one as incredibly sweet and loving as Lexie truly need a miracle.
Lexie recovered rapidly and well from her first surgery. As soon as I would let her out of the “sick bed” (a portable soft-sided playpen I keep for dogs in recovery) she immediately returned to her first alert duties, barking at the outside cats and running to the door to announce the arrival of just about anything or nothing at all. She was lively and playful and still did not act sick.
We began supplementing Lexie’s diet with Colostrum, Missing Link and fish oil capsules, which Lexie didn’t mind so long as they were presented properly: surrounded by copious amounts of Braunsweiger. (Ick! says me, the vegetarian.)
In late June 2009 (four months after the original surgery) the evil disease reared its ugly head again. We found a small hard lump on her shoulder and another one on her abdomen near the original surgical site. And to compound the terrifying turn of events Lexie, who was never a big eater anyway, was starting to lose weight. John and I were so scared for her that we couldn’t even talk about it. Our vet ran her through all the tests (again) to determine her suitability for surgery (again). While we both know that with her diagnosis all we were doing was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, we and Dr. Gividen agreed that if surgery could give her additional time/quality of life, it was worth it.
She was determined to be as good a surgical candidate as she could be given her age and disease; however, the weight loss was a concern. We started giving her Pepcid to quell nausea and “doggie junk food” to tempt her palate, and even resorted to hand-feeding her when we couldn’t inspire her to eat any other way. She obligingly gained back nearly half of the pound she lost. When you have a 7-lb dog with malignant cancer, you celebrate even the smallest of victories.
Lexie underwent a second surgery on July 24 to remove the new tumors, which we had biopsied. The report confirmed our worst fears: more malignant metastatic cancer which had spread either through the lymphatic or vascular systems. The margins weren’t “clean” so the devastating disease is still in here, lurking, waiting to strike again. Every day is bittersweet … full of gratitude that she is still here and enjoying quality of life, but tinged with the sobering knowledge of the inevitable.
John and I celebrated our one year anniversary on August 1, 2009, with our precious little Lexie still bright-eyed, happy and loving, and diligently performing her first alert duties. We agreed to serve on the committee for a Blessing of the Animals to be held at our parish on October 4, and we hope our Lexie will be there with us to be blessed at that ceremony. We know time is not on her side or ours, but we continue to pray for a miracle cure for the devastating disease of canine cancer.