Features October 1998 Issue

Hearing Your Dog Has Cancer

Unorthodox therapies reduce signs of bone cancer, restoring hope for Jet.

The date was Friday the 13th, so I guess I should have expected something unpleasant to happen, but the news from our family veterinarian that our 10-year-old Belgian Shepherd had, “at the most about six months to live,” came as a bolt from the blue. We had noticed a lump on Jet’s left front leg just above the knee joint for a couple of months, but he hadn’t appeared to be lame on the leg, and the area wasn’t hot to the touch or painful on palpation.

Since Jet is an active dog, always an eager participant in the rough and tumble of life with three other dogs on our horse ranch, I assumed he’d knocked it, and that the lump would simply go down as it healed. When I noticed it was actually increasing in size I took him to the vet to determine the cause – still thinking it was something minor, as Jet was otherwise very healthy and cheerful.

Not so, according to our veterinarian. He sadly informed me that it was osteosarcoma, a particularly aggressive form of bone cancer, and that there was nothing we could do but control the pain (which is usually quite severe) and wait for the disease to take its course.

The author was crushed when her dog, Jet, was diagnosed with bone cancer in his right front leg.

The veterinarian took x-rays of the leg, which revealed a large mass entwined around the bone tissue at the lower (distal) end of the long bone in the leg. This type of cancer is common in older, large dogs – and there was no doubt that this was what we were dealing with. It was a textbook case.

The veterinarian predicted the cancer would continue to grow rapidly, causing increasing levels of pain as it interfered with the bone and surrounding tissues. Then it would burst through the bone casing, and finally begin to cause an increasingly suppurating, spreading wound on the outside of the leg. He also suggested there was also a strong possibility that the cancer would spread to other parts of the body.

Sometimes in these cases surgical amputation of the whole leg from the shoulder is performed, but the doctor felt the likelihood of the cancer spreading was fairly high, and that amputation was not really a viable option. When I asked about holistic treatments, our veterinarian (who is of the conventional school, but usually puts up with my “alternative bent”), was of the opinion that “anti-oxidants couldn’t hurt.” He couldn’t offer anything other than treating the symptoms pharmaceutically until the inevitable occurred.

Accepting My Dog's Cancer

My first reaction was initially disbelief, then despair as I visualized losing a very good old friend to a horrible disease. It didn’t help that I’d been to the funeral of another (human) friend the day before, who’d also been the victim of cancer. In a daze, I accepted a bottle of pills from the veterinarian (I still don’t know what they were for!), and left. Driving home, I couldn’t look at Jet’s cheerful furry face in the rear view mirror without tears welling up in my eyes.

By the next morning I’d decided that this wasn’t going to be the way it was at all! I’ve been a firm believer in the alternative therapies for many years, and so I hit the textbooks and the Internet, and started phoning friends for suggestions. I’d worked with a professional herbalist in another state, Robert McDowell, who treats humans, horses, and (I suddenly remembered) dogs, so I emailed him with an outline of Jet’s case.

A friend told us of an veterinarian who used alternative methods and who had successfully treated their Bull Terrier for skin cancer using Chinese herbs. I called the veterinarian, only to be told I should bring Jet to the clinic immediately to amputate the leg. His opinion: “There’s no magic cure for bone cancer – his only chance is amputation, and if you don’t do it immediately, his chances of surviving will decrease rapidly.”

What a dilemma! We hated the idea of amputating his front leg – he’s a very active dog – and his age and somewhat skittish temperament meant the surgery and recovery would be a major trauma for him, with no guarantee of success.

However, the alternative seemed to be losing him very quickly to cancer. To exacerbate the dilemma, by this time Jet was starting to show some discomfort with the leg, favoring it slightly when he walked, and shifting his weight off it when sitting.

The same day, Robert McDowell replied to my email message, saying he had made up an herbal remedy containing equisetum (horsetail), pine bark extract (a really strong antioxidant), comfrey (for bone healing), and yarrow (for its general healing properties), and that it was already in the mail. We were to give Jet 10 drops of this mix twice a day, and McDowell expressed his hope that we could “buy him some time.”

Well, the offer was the most positive thing we’d heard so far, so we nervously decided against the amputation, and to “wait and see” with the herbs. At the same time I started Jet on antioxidant tablets (a mixture of Vitamin E, C, and A, and garlic) , figuring that if they didn’t help him, they surely couldn’t hurt.

Alternative Medicine to Treat Cancer

After we’d been using the herbal mix for about a week, we heard about another veterinarian who used alternative methods and who lived quite close, and I decided it was worth covering all the bases and giving him a call. Dr. Marcel Christiaan runs a mixed practice in the foothills near Perth (Western Australia) and came highly recommended by friends who had taken their cats to him for a variety of complaints, which Christiaan had treated with a mix of conventional and alternative therapies.

Jet, seen here taking a romp on the beach with friends, seems to have recovered from his bone cancer.

Jet took to Dr. Christiaan immediately. Since he’s usually very reserved and nervous with strangers (particularly veterinarians!), this was remarkable. Christiaan agreed with the original diagnosis – he had no doubt that we were dealing with osteosarcoma. He also agreed the condition was advanced. The mass had probably already created its own blood supply, he said, making it very hard to treat.

He also added that he would not recommend amputation in this type of deep-shouldered dog, because the loss of one foreleg would put such pressure on the other leg that he would develop severe arthritis in the joints, and have to be put down anyway. So much for that option.

I explained we had Jet on a mix prepared by McDowell, what it contained, and that we also had him on extra antioxidants and garlic. His opinion was that we doing all the right things, but that he’d like to give Jet equisetum intravenously to make sure he had a sufficient dose, as sometimes the juices in a dog’s digestive tract can interfere with the action of herbs. He’d been using equisetum on cats with feline leukemia with a high rate of success, even with cats that had been in the last stages of the disease, and he felt it was certainly worth a try with Jet. He gave Jet the first dose that day, and booked him in for three more injections over the next week, resulting in a fairly large dose over a short period of time.

Christiaan explained that the herbs and anti-oxidants would strengthen and support Jet’s immune system, and that if the immune system could fight the cancerous cells, then over the next two months we should see some improvement in Jet’s comfort levels. If that occurred, then a remodeling of the bone at the site of the cancer would begin. He stressed that there were no guarantees, but commented as I was leaving, “Jet certainly doesn’t want to give up, so why should we?” Feeling tentatively heartened, we decided simply to take it one day at a time.

Following the last injection a week later, Christiaan asked me to bring Jet back for a checkup in three weeks, and to monitor any changes in his leg but not to limit his exercise as he would do that for himself.

Over the next three weeks, Jet’s energy levels were even greater than usual, his coat gleamed, and his eyes shone. His lameness had decreased, but the lump seemed to be spreading outward – sort of flattening. Suspecting that this probably meant the cancer was still growing; it was with some trepidation that I took Jet back for his check-up.

Dr. Christiaan allayed my fears, saying that Jet was certainly more comfortable on the leg, and that the bone felt as though there could be remodeling beginning to occur! He decided Jet didn’t need another equisetum injection, advised that we continue with McDowell’s herbal drops, the antioxidants, and the garlic, and asked me to bring him back in another six weeks.

About two weeks later, my partner Ron took the dogs for their customary morning walk, only to return ten minutes later with Jet absolutely hobbling lame on his bad leg. Thinking the worst, I called Dr. Christiaan, and his immediate reaction was, “Oh no, I was really hoping that wasn’t going to happen!” Apparently as the bone tissue is remodeling it becomes weak in places, and he suspected Jet had simply landed the wrong way on the leg and fractured the bone.

Dr. Christiaan felt that it was probably only a hairline fracture that would heal rapidly – considering the herbs we had been feeding him – and suggested we give him a crushed aspirin for the pain. If Jet wasn’t noticeably more comfortable in four or five days we were to take him in to the clinic to reconsider the options. When asked whether we should bandage the leg for support, Christiaan said the new bone growth needed to have weight brought to bear on it for healthy growth, and a support bandage would be counterproductive.

We administered the aspirin, and sympathized seriously with Jet over his pain for the first day (he was miserable and very depressed), and were delighted to see that he was markedly better the next morning.

The night before, I’d emailed McDowell to tell him of our setback, and he recommended wrapping the leg with comfrey leaves, which I duly did using a loose-fitting bandage. He also sent another herbal remedy containing additional comfrey, white willow bark and devil’s claw (as anti-inflammatory agents); guiacum (as a lubricant); and Bach Rescue Remedy (for shock). We were to add this to Jet’s usual drops.

Within a week, Jet was completely sound on the leg – which was absolutely remarkable considering the level of pain and lameness he exhibited initially.

Success from Alternative Medicine

Jet’s next check-up (six weeks after his initial visit to Dr. Christiaan) revealed that the bone was still remodeling healthy tissue at the cancer site, and Christiaan was delighted with his progress. He said to continue the herbal drops and antioxidants, and to bring him back in three months, which we did for another positive outcome! Christiaan commented, “You can usually tell whether an animal has the will to live, and there was no way that this one was giving up! He saw it all as a minor inconvenience, really, and once we’d helped his immune system along a little – he did all the rest himself.”

McDowell has also been delighted with continuing positive progress reports. It’s been nine months since the initial diagnosis, and Jet’s still going strong. He still has a bump on his leg where the bone continues to remodel, but has nothing else to show for his close call. In his daily life Jet has never been healthier or more active. His coat is absolutely gleaming, his appetite is voracious, his energy level is higher than when he was a two-year-old, his eyes are bright, and his attitude is overwhelmingly positive. We realize that the situation could change at any time, but are simply delighted that with the help of some dedicated professionals, we’ve been able to buy a good friend some more time with us.

Di Rowling is a free-lance writer who lives near Perth, Western Australia. 

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