Last Friday, we were devastated when we learned why Argus was limping: there is a tumor on his left paw at the “wrist” joint. In 7 days, we have spent $1236 diagnosing the tumor and it has been confirmed as the worst kind of canine bone cancer – osteosarcoma.
We now know more about bone cancer than anyone outside of the veterinarian community should ever know. And we’re not alone. Osteosarcoma affects roughly 10,000 dogs each year and it occurs most prevalently in large breed dogs. It’s a terrible disease that quickly spreads and robs a dog of any chance for a long life. Here’s how our week unfolded:
We spent last Friday and Saturday in shock. We were so sad and weepy; it was all we could do to cling to each other and Argus. Greg researched a special cancer-fighting diet that he believes will help, so we ran errands together to pick up the necessary ingredients on Saturday afternoon. Dr. Sutter called to check in and answer any questions we may have since I was a disaster in his office on Friday. Greg appreciated being able to talk with him first-hand and have his questions answered directly rather than me trying to remember what I had been told. Sunday felt more like a normal weekend day with a road trip to Sacramento. Neither of us shed a single tear that day! My eyes finally de-puffed a little and I didn’t feel so desperate.
Monday, we were back at the vet’s office for more tests. Poor Argus gets nervous every time we pull into the parking lot. I wasn’t sure how long he’d have to be there, so I was “that doggy mama” who brought her own dog’s bed in with us so that he’d have something familiar with him all day. The nice people there smiled and politely obliged me; they deal with crazy pet people like me every day. He was a good boy and sat still for his full-body x-rays, ultrasound, and blood work without the need for sedation. I got the call from Dr. Sutter at noon. Good news! Nothing has spread (yet) and his blood work came back clean. I collected my dog and left the office $460 lighter.
The next step was to meet with the surgeon and oncologist on Wednesday morning. Greg attended this appointment with us. I was armed with pen and paper this time so that I could take notes and keep everything straight. This appointment lasted over 90 minutes and we were given several options (as we heard and understood them):
- Do nothing. Prognosis = a few months at best. Cost = pain medication
- Radiation. Prognosis = several months probably. Cost = $8000
- Chemotherapy. Prognosis = average of 12 months. Cost $3000
- Amputation. Prognosis = average of 12 months. Cost $4000
- Limb Spare. Prognosis = average of 12 months. Cost $7000
I asked them both if there was any chance the tumor was perhaps a fungal infection instead. They agreed with Dr. Sutter that it was not likely, but could not entirely be ruled out. Unfortunately with a fungal infection, you can’t just treat it with antibiotics (but they appreciated my optimism).
I asked each of them separately what they would do if the decision was theirs to make. Both doctors said that Argus is a young and otherwise healthy dog. If we can save his leg, we should. Dr. Cadile, the oncologist, said that there are some studies indicating that leaving the primary tumor in place helps the body stave off metastases. Greg and I agreed: if all things are equal (cost and prognosis), let’s proceed with chemotherapy rather than amputation. It’s still a lot of money to spend in the hopes of getting one year with Argus, but one year is better than six months. The only thing left to do was to confirm that the mass is not a fungal infection, which could be done with a cytology. Dr. Banz estimated this at $60 + sedation. We agreed to move forward with this procedure. I hated the cloud of uncertainty hanging over us.
Greg left for work and I left Argus there for the procedure. When I picked him up a couple of hours later, he was a drunken sailor from the sedation medicine. He couldn’t walk a straight line and his back legs wanted to slide out from under him when we stopped for a few seconds. It would have been comical if it weren’t so tragic. I lifted him into and out of the car, then got him in the house and settled on our bed. His poor little tongue was stuck outside his mouth until I wet it and pried his jaw open to put it back in. He slept the afternoon away and finally came around enough to have dinner.
As it turns out, Wednesday’s meeting was a $453 misunderstanding. I got an email from the oncologist on Thursday morning that summarized everything we talked about. This letter indicated that chemotherapy is not a standalone treatment method, the prognosis with surgery alone is 5-6 months, and the prognosis with surgery + chemo averages 12 months. Furthermore, the exact cost of the chemotherapy drug Carboplatin was provided and the cost is $4800 (not $3000). We were back to square one. The cytology was a $233 (not $60) hail Mary that failed. The test came back as confirmed osteosarcoma. Our spirits were low last night.
My heart is broken that Argus is dying. I have additional heartburn because Greg and I are no longer on the same page about his treatment. With the new information in the summary letter, I believed that the cost is too great to amputate and/or pursue chemotherapy. Even doing nothing, the pain medication will cost us somewhere around $2000 if he lives six months. Greg has been adamant on pursuing amputation, even with its hefty price tag. I approached the subject via IM today, hoping to diffuse some of the emotions that are inevitable with this kind of conversation. The good news is that he finally agreed that spending $4000 (on top of the $1200 that we’ve already spent) is too much to only buy a few extra months with Argus. WHEW! That said, we also agreed to exhaust all possible options for a cheaper amputation facility.
I got in touch with the vet teaching hospital at UC Davis this afternoon and got some very good news. Their cost for the amputation surgery is $750 all-inclusive: two nights in the hospital, anesthesia, surgery, and pain medication (morphine) post-op. I tried to mask my amazement and delight when she revealed that number. Dr. Sutter agreed that this is a very good option for us to pursue and got to work on getting Argus’ records faxed to them. We will find out on Monday whether our case has been accepted. Our fingers and paws are crossed!
In the meantime, Argus and I went for a walk today and he seems in good spirits. He was excited when Greg came home from work and he still has quite an appetite, watching us intently as we prepare his dinner. I am relieved that his pain seems to be under control for the most part and things seem reasonably normal. Greg and I are getting ready to go out to dinner tonight and we feel much better and more hopeful than we did a week ago at this time.
If anyone has any other ideas for remedies pre- or post-amputation, please share them with me in the comments section!