Living, Not Dying

Faced with this choice:

1. Vaccinations and x-rays every six months. She could live another five years if it works. If it doesn’t work, we’d know in six months whether cancer had spread.

or

2. Amputation of the leg at the shoulder, including removal of the lymph node. Better chance at another 5 or more years, and with physical therapy after recovery from surgery, she will learn to accommodate and regain reasonable mobility. Dogs are resilient.

We decided to do nothing.

The veterinarian had removed almost the entire growth for biopsy, but even before the results came back from the lab, I knew. She delivered the bad news in her kind, straightforward manner. I heard her say the words “melanoma” and “dirty margins.” She had already called the veterinary oncologist, who was waiting for us to schedule a consultation. 

I remember asking her why this happens in an otherwise healthy, adult dog. “It’s just bad luck,” she replied.

But Luna is my lucky dog. Rescued from a county shelter where she’d been for 30 days, a shelter that’s closed on Sundays and Mondays, where dogs are left in cages from Saturday afternoon through Tuesday morning. I actually went there to rescue a different dog, only to learn she’d contracted kennel cough and had been euthanized earlier that morning. 

The volunteer asked me if I wanted to come back another day. When I said I intended to save a dog’s life, she eagerly told me about Luna. Well-trained, gentle, playful with other dogs, never barks, no accidents. Why hadn’t anyone adopted her, I wondered. 

We walked outside to the run, where she was playing with another large, shepherd mix. She was funny looking—skinny body, big head, furry scruff around her neck—and covered in mud. It took an hour to fill out the paperwork and get her microchipped, and several more to get her bathed, brushed, and settled in at home. 

Within 24 hours, it became apparent she had kennel cough. 

Had I not taken her home with me, she would almost certainly have been put down as soon as her runny nose betrayed her. I spent the next month telling her how lucky she was. 

Then, 5 ½ years later, the veterinarian told me through tears: Luna’s luck had run out. 

When we decided to forego treatment, because the options ranged from bad to worse and held little hope for positive outcomes, I worried that she would suffer stoically as the cancer silently spread to her bones. It’s not as if she could tell me her bones ached or she was exhausted. The doctor told me what to watch for and reminded me that it was likely the growth would resurface, or she would begin limping or stop jumping up on the couch. It was likely these symptoms would arise within one to five months. “We’ll keep her comfortable and treat the symptoms until it doesn’t make sense to treat her anymore.” And so I spent the summer waiting, monitoring her, wondering if Luna was lethargic from the heat or because her bones ached.

A few weeks ago, at her checkup, the doctor acknowledged what I’d observed for nearly six months: Luna doesn’t seem to be sick, and the cancer doesn’t seem to have progressed. The vet can’t explain why, has never seen a case like this before. “Just enjoy her, and let her be a dog. She doesn’t know she’s dying.”

We’re about the same age now, both of us in our early fifties, and my bones are sometimes achy. Luna is energized, though, by the cooler weather and sometimes takes off running and jumping in the leaves, startling our younger dog that we rescued a year ago. 

Taking the vet’s advice, I’m enjoying her. I’m not thinking about luck, rather about life. 

Life is filled with uncertainty. We find ourselves in circumstances we can’t change, situations we can’t understand. We can’t predict the future, and we can’t decide not to die. But we can make a choice to be alive. 

I choose to live my life with dogs and humans, who, despite occasional aches, walk with me and sometimes jump in the leaves. 

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