On New Year’s Eve 2010, my husband and I heard the words that all pet owners dread – your dog has cancer.
Detailing this journey on paper has not only been cathartic for me as “we” continue to fight this battle but it allows me to remember the joy that simple pleasures bring like seeing Brenna’s face at the window waiting to greet me and then to watch her “puppy bomb” around the living room. Yes, that still happens at 12 years of age so please take the time to laugh and join in their play when they are puppies as it might bring a tear to your eyes when you see a beloved senior dog still revelling in this behaviour.
The swollen nodes in Brenna’s throat were discovered during a typical play session. Teaching your dog to accept handling not only allows you to grab a collar in an emergency situation or to perform basic health routines like nail trimming and ear cleaning but keeps you aware of changes in their skin and coat health etc. These simple acts can be life savers.
Brenna’s “mom” succumbed to lymphoma at the age of 8 and now deep down I knew that at the age of 11, Brenna would be diagnosed as such. Blood work was sent off, a fine needle aspirate was done and we waited. Her blood work results were back in the morning and were negative. It was hard to imagine waiting over the holidays for the biopsy results but they were back that afternoon confirming our fear. Without treatment her prognosis was 4-6 weeks I think I cried even harder when I heard the “guesstimate” of treating her if we chose that route. My husband, Rod and I were in agreement that quality of life was first and foremost and those who know Brenna, know her as both fun loving and tenacious with a strong will of her own! I couldn’t say no and knew that it was not her time.
The journey was about to begin and acting fast was paramount but where to begin and what choices to make??? I found out quickly that the choices were in my hands and the first was to find an oncologist before clinics closed for the holidays. Thankfully I was able to secure an appointment with Dr. Gauthier at the Mississauga Referral Clinic first thing in the New Year.
Upon a physical exam and review of her chart that had been forwarded, we were informed of the protocol that would likely be followed (about 6 months in length) and potential side effects etc. If we were in agreement, Brenna could be taken immediately for her first chemo and we watched Dr. Gauthier lead her away. When we got home I set up a chart on the fridge to detail when her medications were given, to record any side effects, upcoming appointments etc. For the first two months she was scheduled for a chemo treatment once a week. The idea of routine seemed nice but was wishful thinking. Throughout we attempted to keep Brenna on our routine as much as possible to reduce stress on her part and she had always been a seasoned traveller when it came to family trips or dog shows even when she wasn’t the one participating.
Corbyn was entered in an American show the following weekend so we packed up and headed out. Brenna re- quired a few more trips outside during the night (in the snow) which involved a lot of carrying up and down stairs. With her short legs and sometimes lower energy level, we curtailed going up stairs at home as well. This resulted in an excruciating case of tennis elbow for me that lasted a couple of months – when your pet relies on you to be both their voice and caretaker, you have to look after yourself as well.
Brenna’s healing process was going to require not only physical treat ments but attention to nutrition and supplemental care. Once again where to start the information available is overwhelming, vague and often extreme. Following the advice of two friends and a previous introduction, I contacted Suzi Beber at Smiling Blue Skies (www.smilingblueskies.com). Based on Brenna’s treatment protocol, Suzi immediately began working with me and she has been a lifeline throughout this emotional rollercoaster. Through our correspondence, Suzi and I realized that we had lived around the corner from each other before she relocated to Victoria, BC. I was lucky enough to have met her Golden Retriever, Blues whom the foundation is lovingly named for.
As with treatment in humans, a blood test administered at the beginning of each appointment determines whether or not chemo can be given. As the weeks went on, the receptionists at the clinic knew that I waited at the edge of my seat waiting for the thumbs up call from the technician.
At week 3, Brenna’s white cell count was low and treatment was delayed. The importance of diet in the role of healing became so evident. Every dog requires an individual assessment but with suggestions made by Suzi, Brenna’s count was boosted and she was ready for treatment within a couple of days. Our new routine was to share decaffeinated green tea (usually around midnight) when I got home from a night of teaching – Brenna had some wild salmon added to hers. Rod had some disruption in sleep for awhile as Brenna eagerly latched on to this routine. Each time she thought she heard a key in the lock, she would run to the bedroom door to listen and head back to bed to wait.
Before Brenna could be treated with Doxorubicin she had to meet with the cardiologist to ensure the drug could safely be administered to her. Her heart was deemed to be disease free so we forged ahead.
In March I faced a milestone birthday and having Brenna was the greatest gift. As I progressed with her through this journey week to week my mantra became “Believe in Brenna”. Thank you Suzi for designing the pendant that I treasure. The front is stamped Brenna and has pawprints with the word Believe and the back is stamped with Celebrate and a heart to honour having her with me.
Just when I thought we were in a routine and Brenna could enjoy a “break week” I realized that bumps in the road were all part of the journey. Until this point the side effects that Brenna experienced had been quite mild but I soon found out that a pattern was starting to emerge. Eight days following the administration of one particular chemo drug side effects became more pronounced including a lack of appetite and vomiting. In early April on one of these particular days I found Brenna in the kitchen lying on her side shaking. A quick call to the oncologist’s office and we rushed over. Her temperature and blood work were normal so the decision was made to do an abdominal ultrasound as a precaution. What an incredible relief when the results were negative and likely she was experiencing an intense gastric upset. These episodes usually lasted a few days. Brenna wanted to eat but refused food she associated with being nauseous. I would syringe gastrointestinal wet food diluted with organic chicken broth to keep up her strength and she would quickly bounce back. It was a learning experience as we continued and I became proactive when it came time for this particular drug side effects continued but were minimized.
In April while Rod was out of town on business I had the opportunity to do a charity photo shoot with Brenna held by As It Happens photography. In lieu of a sitting fee, proceeds were to go to the Canadian Cancer Society. I carefully bathed and groomed her and her coat shone – the only hair loss over the course of treatment was under her chin. I discovered upon arrival at the studio that the shoot which had a Spring and Easter theme involved live, baby bunnies. The “Leave It” command taught to Brenna came in handy – she took it in stride as if it was a new, tougher proof for a stay exercise. She tried so hard not to look as one bunny got curious and turned to look at her. One of the photos I chose may not be the best of her but I laugh when I look at it and see how she is fighting to ignore this fidgety little creature. We had such a fun day together and this became Rod’s happy “Fathers Day” surprise.
As the temperature became milder, Brenna increasingly demanded more backyard time – even shortening the word backyard to “the b.y.” elicited a volley of barks and the neighbours were alerted that she was on duty. Barbequing became an event as did daily flower watering. There was no sneaking out the sliding doors in this house with a barbeque flipper or watering can in hand and she was the best helper you could have in both departments.
Since heartworm treatments were no longer an option, we wanted to ensure that Brenna could still enjoy outdoor time in the evening. Rod erected a gazebo by the back door aka “Brenna’s room.” She promptly let us know her thoughts as she flipped up the screen with her nose and walked out. She soon learned that she could still monitor “her park” and stay on guard while enclosed.
Brenna’s 6 month protocol was scheduled to end by July but due to a few treatment delays this was not the case. Earlier in the year, Rod and I decided to plan a 12 day vacation in the Maritimes to visit our friends Tracy and Darryl Snyder of Canwin Goldens and help celebrate Darryl’s 40th birthday. Brenna was now scheduled to have her second last treatment the day before our departure. It was also to be a treatment with Vincristine which meant that day 8 would now fall on the day of the party. Rod and I didn’t let that faze us as we loaded the van and headed out with the two dogs for an 18 hour drive. Brenna curled up in her donut bed on the seat behind me. At times I would feel eyes boring into the back of my head as she initiated what we termed “road games” – you have to keep “the kids” entertained. I would have a piece of cookie in one hand ( usually away from the side she was looking at) and I held both hands behind me. Very quickly I would feel a wet nose against the correct hand as she won the game. After a few times she was content to curl up again and you wouldn’t know there were dogs in the car with us.
I had only made reservations for a stopover in Quebec both ways and for our visit outside Truro Nova Scotia. We had decided to wing the rest which is always a risk when travelling with dogs but we like to keep our options open and forgo deadlines. We toured PEI first and lucked in by finding a housekeeping unit not far from the bridge and I could cook for Brenna. She even had her own room! The highlight for me was touring the coast of Nova Scotia. Rod carried Brenna out on the rocks at Peggy’s Cove and she strolled around Lunen- burg and Mahone Bay. We were fortunate to find a beach in Hubbards for Corbyn to have swim time. Swimming is beneath Brenna – a quick cooling of the belly and she is happy to lie on a blanket and people watch.
As we got closer to the day of the party and that critical “day 8” I was preparing for side effects. We were so pleasantly surprised that with routine change, travel excitement etc , that Brenna only showed signs of being tired. With all the activities taking place, we set her up in a cool, quiet kennel area and she rested. On our last day in Nova Scotia we all enjoyed watching Brenna “tour” around Tracy’s fenced in acre and how she tried to control a kennel of Goldens from behind the sliding doors. Our drive home was uneventful and within a couple of days after returning home Brenna received the ok for the final treatment of her protocol. What a momentous day as she was presented with her “Looking Good” certificate.
Over the course of the year as I watched Brenna’s tenacity and zest for life, I dreamed that I could walk in to the performance ring with her one last time. At times it felt like a tennis match in my head as I volleyed the idea back and forth. When Brenna completed her obedience championship, Rally obedience was not recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club and I had only titled her in CARO trials. My goal was to make our annual trek to Elliot Lake for Corbyn’s first Utility trials. Four Rally trials were offered and Brenna would need to qualify 3 times. Rod suggested that I just enter three and if it was meant to be it would happen – the pressure was on! I left Brenna at the motel to rest and concentrated on Corbyn’s 8:30am trial. I broke my cardinal rule when it comes to Rally. I was so excited at Corbyn qualifying on his first attempt that I was delayed in picking Brenna up. I missed a full walk through of the Rally Novice course. Yes, I was nervous but was outwardly staying calm for her. I sat on the arena floor with her and gently talked to her. I told her that we would walk at her speed and we were just going to have fun together! As we walked in to the ring together for the first time in years she glanced up at the judge and I can only imagine after her experiences of the last several months large obedience rings – not to mention that she was competing against dogs 10 years younger. On day 2, the fun and teamwork paid off as we completed the requirements for our Rally Novice title. After the ribbon presentation I asked judge Del Lunn if he would mind having a photo taken quickly before my emotions got the better of me. That moment ranks close to the top as being one of the most thrilling and emotional accomplishments made with my canine partners.
Once again, not ones to change routine, we headed off to Manitoulin Island to wind down after a hectic weekend of trialing – no connection to the outside world for a couple of days. The first day there we left Brenna in the cabin to rest while Corbyn was taken beach to beach and swam to his heart’s content – we eventually convince him that he’s done! We headed back to the cabin to spend the evening with Brenna and as usual she took on the role of being Rod’s barbeque buddy and then curled up with us as we battled it out over the scrabble board. On the second day there was no way she was going to be left behind and made that perfectly clear. The highlight for me every year is to drive to the far side of the island to the Mississagi lighthouse where Rod usually takes photos of the dogs and I with the rosettes we’ve won at the trials. We arrived to some light rain but managed to take a few. We then walked down to the shale beach and while Corbyn once again swam, Brenna strolled, paddled and posed for pictures.
We headed home by way of the ferry with Brenna as usual loving the wind in her face as she sat on the life preserver bin on the “pet deck.” This is always followed by a tour around Tobermory and just a taste of vanilla ice cream.
Our home air conditioner conked out on the hottest day of the summer so my time off in August was spent enjoying time with Brenna in her outdoor room – fans running day and evening but even with her thick black coat she would lie on the patio given her way. Our high- light in August was the celebration of Brenna’s 12th birthday. Rod barbequed an organic beef patty for her and I topped it with cheese and diced red pepper. She patiently waited as I stuck in a candle and had her pose for a picture (I always termed it plop and shot as she patiently would let me set her up for many “artsy” photos).
Brenna was scheduled to visit the oncologist approximately once a month for a check-up. In August she was deemed to be cancer clear and I inquired how long it would be before she was considered to be in remission. I discovered that she had been in remission since the end of January – not knowing that at the time was my only regret in this journey – oh how my stress level would have been reduced but at the same time we rejoiced at the news and “believed” more than ever.
In September I started the new school year with respect to training classes and Brenna remained cancer clear. She had an ongoing problem with a cyst between her front toes which was not cancerous but required several treatments with antibiotics and finally a check up with the dermatologist and it became an issue that I just learned to manage. Boots were an option to keep the area from being irritated and to discourage licking but knowing her as I did, they would only stress her so whenever an outbreak occurred and as a prevention we managed the situation with a soft cone which she contentedly wore.
As Thanksgiving approached, Rod and I planned a few days away as usual for our anniversary – there have only been two years when the dogs didn’t accompany us and this time would be no exception. We wanted to keep it simple and travel close to home. We chose to return to the Finger Lakes region in New York State where we were already comfortable with a hotel that accepted pets. We strolled through a local scarecrow festival and sat by the water enjoying the spectacular weather.
Our 3 month check-up did not have the outcome we were hoping for – her nodes were once again raised. I called Rod to join me for the appointment and the options were presented. The original protocol could be repeated, however, we knew if she did go in to remission it would likely be shorter. Option 2 was to try a rescue protocol or Option 3 was to do palliative care. We went home to discuss and consult and opted to try a rescue protocol knowing that she could only tolerate 4 more treatments with doxorubicin. October 20th was her first treatment and I also took measures to protect her liver. It became evident that the treatment was not having the desired effect. We tried again at the beginning of November with a Doxorubicin injection but once again Brenna’s nodes remained raised. It was during this time that I held Tri-Mark’s annual photo day with Neil Kinnear and Lesley Chung.
This year I decided to simultaneously host a fundraiser for the Smiling Blue Skies Cancer Fund. We were proud to raise just under $600 for Suzi Beber and the photo taken of Brenna at the event will be published in the Spring 2012 edition of the Ontario Veterinary College newsletter. We had a wonderful family photo taken at the event – Brenna looks so good and it is treasured.
We made the decision to try a third chemo drug as she was still so full of zest. Although the lymph nodes did not get larger, they were still hard and were not noticeably shrinking. I sat down with Rod to make some tough family decisions. Brenna was eating well (in a year of treatment she lost no more than a couple of pounds). She wanted to participate in outings and walks, chewing her Kong etc. Rod said he would like her to be our Christmas miracle and that we should fight with her as long as we continued to see that she was enjoying life. With the decision to sacrifice what we needed to in order to start the original protocol and with support and guidance behind us, we were eager to try. To “jump start” her system, Brenna was first given a chemo treatment with Elspar which would attack only the cancerous cells. The lymph nodes responded very quickly.
Corbyn at this time needed one more qualification to attain his Obedience Championship and I was often training at the office until midnight. We had two chances left before the end of the year – one trial on December 3rd and the other on the 4th. I had decided that with all we had been through that Rod’s surprise Christmas gift would be a photo of Corbyn as a new champion – no pressure at all!!!!!! There were many in on this secret and a code phrase was prepared if he qualified. Corbyn gave me his all that day attaining title number 15 but I went home and walked through the door with disappointment on my face and spent time with Brenna.
Brenna had been given a chemo treatment two days previously and she was typically fine as mentioned before with this drug until day 8. This time she seemed off the next day and was quite sluggish. On Sunday December 4th Corbyn and I were in the ring quite early and I asked Rod to wish us luck as we headed out. I said that I would call him when we were finished so we could run some errands. Corbyn once again qualified, this time earning a second place rosette. I was ready to pack up and leave but Deb Desjardine (obedience judge and sister of Tracy Snyder) began encouraging me to stay as I would be in the running for a trophy. Little did I know that so many had been keeping a secret from me. As the judges broke for lunch, judge Del Lunn called everyone to his ring for a special presentation and I wandered down to listen. Del said that he was making a special presentation (a Pink Army Rosette) awarded by Tracy Snyder who is on her own journey as she battles breast cancer. The rosette was being donated to her heros – Linda Webb and her Corgi Brenna. I stood fixated and stunned for a moment and then made my way in to the ring. The building door opened and Rod walked in with Brenna. I dropped to my knees and she walked over to me. The tears came as I sat with her and Del read the wonderful letter that Tracy had written. We took photos and Del kindly sent me the original he had read from which was so appreciated as it really didn’t sink in at the time. It was such a wonderful gift that Tracy gave us in recognizing this feisty little dog who fought so hard. As I said to her, so many are recognized after they pass and it was so special that she was with me.
Here is the letter as it was presented:
“I would like to take this time to make a special presentation.
This Pink Army Rosette award is dedicated to a dog and handler team that have influenced me in a special way. I would like to introduce Linda Webb and her Pembroke Welsh Corgi Brenna. I am approaching my fight with cancer in a very similar way to what Linda and Brenna are with their journey. That is with 100% dedication and a strong and determined will to live.
From the day Brenna was diagnosed with cancer, Linda educated herself and took immediate action. Linda sought advice from knowledgeable individuals and set her mind on helping Brenna through her battle. Brenna, you and I have incredible teammates on our journey. Brenna was diagnosed in January 2011 with lymphoma and began treatments the same day. The program called for an intensive schedule and they ex- pected to experience some harsh side effects. Being the trooper she is, Brenna only had a handful of days throughout the whole process where she did not appear to be her joyful self.
She reacted favourably to the protocol and went into remission quickly and remained there for approx. 8 months. It was during her remission that Rod, Linda and Brenna came to visit us here in Nova Scotia. Seeing the love they have for her and watching this little dog act as if nothing was wrong was quite inspiring.
During her remission this summer, Linda and Brenna (12 years old) set out to trial once more in the Rally rings. On July 30 and 31st Brenna and Linda qualified in three Rally novice trials with scores of 91, 86 and 92 to earn their CKC RN title. Like most of our dogs they are happiest when they are out competing with us and maintaining their teammate status.
Unfortunately the cancer has come back and she is now undergoing a second round of treatment but she has shown positive signs thus far: I would like to introduce my Pink Army Member “Brenna” CH. OTCH UCDX Stormbran’s Tri N Follow CGC RNMCL RACL RN
Congratulations Linda, Rod and Brenna for being my HERO’s and helping me see that fighting the battle against cancer takes the love of friends, believing in a medical team, hard work and a strong desire to beat the odds.
On behalf of myself, Tracy Snyder, I would like to present Linda, Rod and Brenna this special award.”
By Monday Brenna was not herself and for the first time in all she had been through, things really didn’t seem right. On Tuesday morning she seemed spooked, was stumbling and trying to hide in a corner. If I had only known, I wish I had curled up with her for a few minutes but called the oncologist right away. I carried her in to the clinic and she fell over as I placed her on the ground. I called Rod and asked him to meet me. Brenna’s white cell count was within normal range but her red count was off. One possibility was internal bleeding. Rod and I had always maintained that quality of life was paramount. It broke our hearts but it was her time. Anyone who knew Brenna closely knew how she hated to be fussed over so I sat quietly with her and she took cookies from me. As much as she wanted to head for the door, her body was ready to let go.
Thank you Suzi again for your comforting words as you said “You gave her the greatest gift of love and courage today by letting her go to dance among the brightest stars … her star, brightest of all.”
As I write this, I feel I have come full circle as my next birthday is upon me. Brenna won’t be with me to celebrate this time but I don’t regret the commitment I made last year to her and we were blessed to have her with us for another year.
Thank you to all who supported us in so many ways and a special thank you to Jill White of Stormbran Kennels who entrusted us with this special dog and who not only encouraged us throughout this journey but who remains a dear friend.
May this inspire you to enjoy your dogs each and every day as they live their lives in the moment.
August 30th 1999 – December 6th 2011
If It Should Be
If it should be that I grow frail and weak And pain should keep me from my sleep Then you must do what must be done For this, the last battle can’t be won You will be sad, I understand
Don’t let your grief then stay your hand, For this day, more than the rest,
Your love and friendship stand the test, We’ve had so many happy years,
What is to come can have no fears. You’d not want me to suffer so,
When the time comes, please let me go. Take me where my needs they’ll tend Only, stay with me to the end
And hold me firm and speak to me
Until my eyes no longer see.
I know in time that you will see
It is a kindness you do to me
Although my tail its last has waved, From pain and suffering, I’ve been saved. Don’t grieve that it should be you
Who has to decide this thing you do. We’ve been so close, we two these years Don’t let your heart hold any tears.