My anxiety often leads me towards ridiculous fears. I’m not proud to admit how many times I’ve diagnosed myself with skin cancer or an irregular heartbeat. It’s easy for my brain to create fiction that’s much scarier than truth.
But my heart is breaking as I type this, because I was right when it came to Pascale.
Yesterday a MRI revealed a mass growing out the base of her skull. It started in the bone, and is growing into her spine. It’s pinching a major nerve by her TMJ, which is causing her head sensitivity and jaw pain.
While she was under, we did a needle biopsy but were unable to get enough cells to know exactly what kind of tumor it is. A neurologist, radiologist and oncologist all reviewed the scans. While there’s a small chance it could be a benign tumor, and even smaller chance it could be an infection, everyone agrees that it’s most likely osteosarcoma—an aggressive and highly painful cancer.
They usually present in the leg, and the course of treatment is amputation, chemotherapy and/or radiation. The amputation isn’t to isolate the cancer, because it almost always spreads by the time you find it, but rather cut off the source of the dog’s pain. With surgery, radiation and chemo dogs may live up to a year but six months is more common.
Even if I wanted to, we can’t remove the tumor entirely. It’s deep, deep in her head near a lot of important nerves and connective bone between the head and the neck. To just get an official official diagnosis requires an invasive surgical biopsy. The specialist I’m working with did not suggest I pursue any kind of surgery. She said the thing I always ask vets, “I wouldn’t do that on my own dog.”
Next week I’ll meet with the oncologist to discuss my options between chemo and/or radiation, but I think I already know that any kind of treatment would be for me, not her. My vet said that I could throw everything at this and maybe get six months. While Eliot was a soldier and could handle large amounts of pain without flinching, Pascale will dramatically limp around with a 2mm nick in her paw. She is sweet, but not tough. I will let the experts guide me, but I think I already know. Not to mention the cost. A dog MRI is not any less expensive than a horse MRI. Her care is not about the money for me, though I don’t have endless pockets, but at some point you have to ask yourself if 60 days is worth $15,000.
I’m trying to hide my grief from her, but it’s not working. I’m shattered. On the drive home from work today, I looked at old pictures of her and sobbed while sitting in traffic. I loved Eliot, but I have never loved a dog like this. When I look at her smiling at me or running around with a wagging tail, my heart explodes with love. Now, I’m just imploding.
Great people are helping me through this news and the bad times we all know are ahead. Because of their support, I’m trying not to get too angry. But it’s beyond unfair. It feels like the only thing I have left to hold onto in the world is her, and now she’s going. She’s six and a half (I always rounded up to try and give myself extra time before she actually got old, but there’s no point to that now), and she’s dying.
I’m doing my best to keep her from realizing it. As the tumor grows, it will push into her spine and affect her mobility. But right now she’s moving great. A mix of steroids and gabapentin is getting her facial/jaw pain under control. She will live on those drugs until they stop working. When they do, it’ll probably be about time.
The first night back in my house after Tim died, I had our king bed all to myself. It was an emptiness that choked me. Pascale usually slept on the floor, but she looked up at me from the side of the bed. I patted my hand on Tim’s side. She leapt up, spun around three times, and put her head down on his pillow. The first night, the first week, the first month, the first year, I fell asleep with her steady breathing beside me. Every night since then, often with her head on my leg or her paw stretched out over my hand.
Last night around 2am, the pain meds the hospital gave her ran out and she hurt from the needle biopsy and all of the nerve pain. She jumped out of bed, tried to drink a little water, and listlessly walked around the house. I heard her cry a few times. Eventually she walked over to my side of the bed, and looked at me with a pained expression.
I patted my hand on the mattress. Instead of heading to her side (it stopped being Tim’s side years ago), she laid down right next to me on the edge. Her long body pushed up against mine from my knee to my shoulder. I felt her tremble from the pain.
Though I spent most of yesterday crying, I did not cry while she shivered. I covered her with a blanket, and wrapped my arm around her chest. With each quake of her body, I spoke to her in soft tones and told her she was going to be okay and that I would take care of her. Wrapped up around this perfect dog, my heart, I wanted to absorb all of her pain. She’s spent her entire life soaking up mine. Before too long, the trembling stopped and was replaced by the quiet quivering feet of dreams.
Tonight was a good one for her. She is guarding her face less, not showing outward signs of pain. I wouldn’t call her normal, but it was a good day. I don’t know how many we have left together, but I will do everything I can to save her from bad ones. She has no idea that’s she’s supposed to live with me for years more. That’s the gift of being a dog. We aren’t so lucky, burdened by our own expectations.
In the next few months, or however long we have, I will try my best to live in the present with her instead of succumbing to the grief that I know is lingering just outside. It is too familiar. I recognize it already as the dark weight hanging in my chest. But for now I can still touch her, talk to her in silly voices. Tell her she’s the best girl ever. How much I love her. How much she’s helped me.
That has to be enough for now, because I’m not getting anything else. There is no miracle cure coming. Just the miracle that we found each other in the barn aisle a little over six years ago. The miracle of how much a human and a dog can love each other.