At Veterinary Specialty Care, our days are filled with a plethora of furry patients. All of these pets are special to us and we pride ourselves in giving our patients the best care that we possibly can. Some of these pets we may only meet once, some we have affectionately deemed ‘frequent flyers’ and are blessed to have the chance to get to know, and care for, throughout their journey through life and any obstacles that they may encounter. Though many will walk through our doors, some will leave a lasting impression on the minds and hearts of our staff members. Sometimes, it isn’t just the patient but the owner(s) that we bond with as well. Willow is one of those dogs and this is his story.
In mid-May of 2018, Willow presented to Dr. Mims with our Internal Medicine department in North Charleston. Willow was exhibiting symptoms of a fever, diarrhea, inappetance and rapid weight loss. Our Internal Medicine department performed bloodwork and an abdominal ultrasound which showed that Willow was suffering from a mass in his small intestines. The findings were pointed to either a benign mass, fungal disease, or that scary C-word, cancer. Surgery was the recommended plan, to remove the mass and find out exactly what was being dealt with. Dr. Mims scheduled Willow that next morning for mass removal with Dr. Bianucci at our Surgery department in Mount Pleasant. The mass was a ‘proximal jejunal mass-intraluminal’ (mass on the small intestine). Dr. Bianucci felt confident in the surgery and the removal of the mass and it was sent out to the lab for testing. It would be a few days before biopsy results were received. Willow stayed overnight for post operative care, as is the norm for any invasive surgery.
Fast forward several days — the test results came back. The mass was deemed malignant – lymphoma. Lymphoma is a very common cancer of dogs and is one of the most common forms of cancer in dogs that we treat here at Veterinary Specialty Care. It is not known why certain dogs develop lymphoma. In some dogs there is an underlying genetic component and in others there are no predisposing factors. Lymphoma usually arises in the lymphoid tissues of the body (lymph nodes, spleen and bone marrow), though lymphoma can affect any part of the body. In Willow’s case the lymphoma was located in the GI tract.
For those that don’t know, there are five stages of lymphoma (I – V) and these stages are based on what areas of the body are involved with the lymphoma. With stage I lymphoma, only one single lymph node is involved, or a single lymphoid organ. Stage II lymphoma, means that the lymph nodes are enlarged on one side of the diaphragm. With stage III lymphoma, which is the most common form, lymph nodes on both sides of the diaphragm are enlarged. If the liver and/or spleen are involved this is classified as a stage IV. Stage V lymphoma is when it is in the blood, bone marrow, or organs other than a lymphoid organ such as the eye, skin, nervous system, or gastrointestinal tract. A PARR test was done to determine the type of lymphoma Willow had; and it was determined that he had Stage V, T-cell gastrointestinal lymphoma.
According to the literature, T cell lymphomas have shorter remission and survival times (usually of approximately 6 months average survival), but we have certainly had T cell lymphomas and stage V lymphomas that live much longer than 6 months with a very good quality of life. Lymphoma is the most chemotherapy responsive tumor that dogs have, so we always encourage owners to treat lymphoma patients with chemotherapy. Approximately 92% of dogs with lymphoma will go into a state of remission after the first 1 – 2 treatments.
Because of the good response of lymphoma to chemotherapy, it was recommended that Willow start chemotherapy under the care of our oncologists, Drs. Taylor, Wall and Angelo. Chemotherapy treatment involves a variety of drugs that destroy only rapidly growing cells, (like most cancer cells), and some healthy cells that are innocent bystanders. These drugs may be administered orally, subcutaneously, or intravenously. Fortunately, unlike humans, animals generally have mild side effects from chemotherapy.
Over the course of 2 months, 3 chemo protocols were employed (CHOP, MOPP and CCNU). When one started to show ineffective, we would move on to another. Throughout the entire process, Willow’s parents were concentrated only on his quality of life, getting Willow feeling well with as little complications and side effects as possible. They did not want Willow to feel any pain. Affectionately referring to the Oncology technicians as Willow’s ‘girlfriends’, they would often bring in special treats. Willow’s parents constantly did everything they could to make sure Willow was enjoying life, not suffering, and even lovingly poked fun at cancer at times. Trips were made to Willow’s favorite places like the beach, the neighbor’s house, family photo sessions were done; they even created a Facebook to share hopeful thoughts and Willow’s story, appropriately naming it, ‘Willow the Warrior’, @willowpunchescancer. To remain in such positive spirits, his parents were determined to do everything in their power to help Willow, while facing such a difficult battle, and that is truly amazing.
On a mid-August day, after a downhill battle for 2 days and being so weak he could hardly stand or walk on his own, Willow’s parents knew it was time. Our staff members cried along with Willow’s parents; they had become like extended family to us in the last few months. A few short days after Willow crossed the rainbow bridge, his mom celebrated her birthday by bringing pizza to our staff, thank you cards and photos to share of Willow. Though Willow’s body is gone, his soul and spirit will never be forgotten and the bond between Willow and his parents, and their selflessness and dedication throughout Willow’s journey, have truly touched the lives of all of us here at Veterinary Specialty Care.
Some thoughts from Willow’s friends here at VSC:
“Willow was a special dog with a loving family by his side from day
one. He had a very aggressive disease but always managed to have a
wag for everyone here at the hospital.”
-Dr. Gabrielle Angelo, DVM – Oncology
“Willow was such a sweet boy, always up for a cuddle! He was so lucky to have a family that loved him unconditionally and will stay in our hearts forever”
– Simone, Client Service Representative – Internal Medicine
“I could tell that he [Willow] meant a lot to her and that she [his mom] would do anything for him and was not ready to give up. They sent me a lovely thank you card this week along with a picture. It is cases like this that remind me that each family and their hopes/expectations/values/beliefs are different and our job is ALWAYS to provide the best medical advice and to give options. Some families might not have moved forward with surgery and might have considered humane euthanasia due to the initial findings. Some families might not have pursued chemotherapy. Some families might feel like the additional 3.5 months of quality time was not worth the expense. Not the Punch Family. She was so grateful for the additional quality time with Willow. While I am sad that he has passed, I was glad to hear that it was peaceful and surrounded by his loving family.”
-Dr. Holly Mims, DVM – Internal Medicine
“I had the great pleasure of working with Willow and his parents during his chemo treatments. There are so many things that I loved about him and his parents but the one thing that sticks out is how thankful they were for the time that they had with him that they would not have had without chemo. People always ask how we do what we do because it is so sad, Willow’s parents hit the nail on the head.”
-Christi, Technician – Internal Medicine
“Willow and his family were so kind to us girls up front every time they came in even when things were not going well for them. Willow was such a sweet boy and always loved attention. We always loved giving him some cuddles when in treatment area in back. He is so missed around here as we are always talking about them up front!!!!”
-Coranna, Client Service Representative – Internal Medicine