Canine cancer survivors

When you know a loved one's life is nearing its end, you tend to make the most of the time that's left.

Tara Nultemeier makes sure to take her dog, Tizzy, on a walk every day. She cherishes every moment she spends with Tizzy since the 6-year-old weimaraner was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago.

"You look at life differently when you think you're going to lose your dog. She is my child and my sidekick," Nultemeier said. "I love her so much, and I am not ready for her to die."

Nultemeier's connection with her dog isn't rare. Many pet owners spend vast sums of money, explore a variety of healing methods and become emotionally drained through their attempts to save their animals.

Fighting cancer in pets is increasingly common, and the plight of pet owners and their sick animals is being brought to greater light.

For the first time, the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life fundraiser will honor pets that have survived or been lost to cancer. Up until this year, the nationwide event, which takes place locally in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 4 and 5, has honored only human cancer victims and survivors.

Dr. Kim Radway, a veterinarian at Pet Kare Clinic in Steamboat, is assembling a team for the relay and raising money for luminarias to honor pets that have battled cancer.

During the Relay for Life event, local pets that have survived cancer will walk -- with their owners -- alongside human cancer survivors during the Survivors Lap. The lap is intended to show that people and animals can survive cancer and that progress is being made in the battle against the deadly disease.

In fact, animals that are struck with cancer are key in the fight to find a cure, Radway said. She works closely with the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins, where Tizzy has gone for treatment.

"They have the world's leading experts in animal cancer," Radway said. "The treatments are first implemented with animals and then with people. It all starts with veterinary medicine."

Tizzy has only one chemotherapy treatment left; she's already undergone six. Chemotherapy affects dogs differently than it does people.

"Chemo in dogs is totally different. Most will never show signs of sickness, and they don't lose their hair," Nultemeier said. "But their hair growth does slow down."

Nultemeier said it takes three to five days for dogs to show adverse effects to chemo. Those symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and dehydration.

"I make sure someone is with her 24 hours a day for the five days following her chemotherapy," Nultemeier said. "If I go out to dinner, I get a babysitter."

Before the chemotherapy is administered, Tizzy is weighed and blood is drawn to check her white blood cell count. The chemotherapy is then administered through an IV, and Tizzy is sent home with a bandage over the injection site.

Tizzy's treatment has included more than chemotherapy. She underwent a surgery during which 11 mast cell tumors were removed from her body. She also has received acupuncture, vitamin and other medicinal injections and a change to her diet. Tizzy also has visited a pet communicator and wears healing crystals around her neck.

The treatments come at a cost. The surgery and chemo will cost about $5,000. Nultemeier has been relying on donations given to her through an account set up at Pet Kare Clinic.

"So far, people have donated checks in amounts of $300, $400 and $850," Nultemeier said. "The amounts were unbelievable. Some were from weimaraner owners that I don't know. This is a pretty amazing community."

Tizzy's prognosis is good. Her veterinarians say she could live as long as five more years.

Nultemeier said she has no regrets about the money she's spent and the treatment she's sought.

"It was hard on me and hard on her," Nultemeier said. "Nobody understands how you feel unless they are a dog owner and have gone through it. I have absolutely no idea of the likelihood of the cancer coming back, but we are going to live our lives and have fun."

Kona, a 12-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, has not been as lucky as Tizzy. His mast cell tumor already has been removed twice. But it always returns, and the tumor is now considered Grade 3 -- the most dangerous level of mast cell cancer in animals.

His owner, John Stritt, took him to Pet Kare Clinic on Thursday to see what options were left.

"It's questionable if he will survive surgery, but nobody should have to live with this tumor on their side," Stritt said. "I wouldn't wish this on anyone's dog."

Kona has been battling cancer for more than three years. And Stritt already has gone through many stages of the grieving process.

"I've done my share of crying, and I've been angry," Stritt said. "We get so attached to our dogs because they are our babies. I hope for the best, but if he has to go, there's a lot of good doggies waiting for him in heaven."

But there are success stories with pet cancer.

Janet Haverley's dog, Chance, was diagnosed with mast cell tumors in 1999. The cancer was considered a high Grade 2. Even when Grade 2 tumors are removed, 60 percent of the victims die within two years.

Nine years later, Chance -- a blue heeler -- is a happy and healthy dog. Haverley said she was cut from stern to stem to make sure they removed as much cancer as they could.

"I didn't care about the scarring, I just wanted it out," said Haverley, who is a veterinary technician at Pet Kare Clinic. "I remember thinking at the time that dogs die. When I got the negative report (that the cancer had not spread), I went back to the lab and burst out crying. It was a huge relief and affected me more that I thought it would."

Robbie Shia has another success story. Eleven months ago, he took his golden retriever, Lola, to a vet to find out what was causing the swelling in her knee. His vet could not diagnose it.

"I went to get a second opinion at Pet Kare Clinic, and the next day her leg was amputated," Shia said. "She has hemangiosarcoma cancer, which is the worst kind. It attacks the blood and bones and never really leaves the body."

If her leg had not been amputated, vets said she would had lived only three months.

"The doctor told me she had one year with the chemo and the amputation, but he also told me not to get my hopes up," Shia said. "I was crying after I heard that."

Lola's brother, Magee, helps her heal, and she lives a happy and active life. The cost of her surgery and treatments were about $2,500. Shia picked up extra shifts to pay the bills.

"I started working more just to afford her diet and anything she needed," Shia said. "I worked nonstop for 90 days last summer."

When asked why he saved her, his answer came immediately.

"She's my first dog and the love of my life," Shia said. "Some people have connections with their dogs, and some people just have pets."

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