Sometimes three legs are better than four
Maggie tries really hard to be a good guard dog. When you come to the door of her home, you can hear her barking in a strange muffled way, which makes you wonder until the door is opened and you realize she has a teddy bear in her mouth. That being said Maggie loves people and once she meets you she is all smiles, teddy bear or no teddy bear. Maggie has a way of smiling with her eyes that just draws people in.
When I meet Maggie she had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma or bone cancer in one of her front legs. At the time her family were exploring options to treat her but one thing was almost certain, regardless of treatment, in a year she would no longer be with us. Bone cancer has a very poor prognosis, usually causing death within three months with no treatment and within 6-12 months with aggressive treatment.
I could tell when I met Maggie’s family how important she was to them. Her family lived in a wonderful older home with one of those grand living rooms and they really liked having photos of those they loved in this space. When I walked in I immediately noticed that there were as many photos of Maggie and the kitties of the household as there were of the human family members. Her family told me how difficult it was for them to have Maggie sick because their previous dog had died of lung cancer and now Maggie also had a cancer that usually spread to the lungs.
We talked for a long time about the options that were available for Maggie. They had already seen an oncologist and had set up appointments for radiation and chemotherapy but they really were hoping for some way for Maggie to completely beat the cancer.
I always like to give people hope and tell them that not every animal follows the textbooks and that acupuncture can sometimes dramatically change the course of an illness but at the same time I try to be realistic. I explained that we could probably double Maggie’s time here and make her feel better but that it would be unlikely that we would completely get remission. I remember looking at this beautiful dog so full of life and her family who loved her so much and thinking that it was so tragic that she would not make it to old age.
As time passed Maggie did not get sick but she did become incredibly painful because of the tumor in her leg. I would show up to treat her and she would no longer get up most of the time. When I looked in her eyes, I saw so much pain. I felt so bad that not even the strongest drugs we had and the acupuncture could keep the pain away for her.
Amputation became the only option to stop Maggie’s pain but what a difficult decision. I saw her family struggle with the decision of what seemed like a major mutilation of her body to them. Maggie had lived almost a year with the cancer at this point and by everyone’s assessment she was supposed to be gone by now. Was it worth doing an amputation only to have her die a few months later?
Amputation is one of the hardest decisions for an animal’s human companions to make. So many thoughts go through their mind. Will they still be whole? Will they want to be alive with only three legs? Will they still be able to do the things they love? Will they understand why I did this or hate me for taking away a part of their body?
One day Maggie got up and when she stepped down on her front leg it broke right in two. The cancer had weakened the bone so much that it could no longer support her weight. At this point it became a much easier decision to make and Maggie had the leg amputated almost immediately.
With three legs, Maggie may not be able to go for long walks like she used to and the stairs are sometimes hard for her to navigate but Maggie greets each day with a playful spirit and a happiness to be here. She loves to greet neighbors who walk by and many people in the neighborhood know her as the dog that cancer could not take.
These days I do not treat Maggie as often and our main concern is keeping her legs healthy so she can continue to get around. I feel like coming to treat Maggie is like seeing an old friend.
She rolls over on her side after the needles are in and I stroke her belly and neck. If I stop for even a moment she lifts her head to look at me with those big eyes, “please don’t stop.” There is a familiarity and a comfort in visiting Maggie and it feels like I have been included in her special family of people who she shares her happiness, love and the journey of her battle with cancer.
When I stopped by Maggie’s house this week she bounced over to greet me with a tennis ball in her mouth and than run to the other edge of the yard to pick up another one. She raced around with the two tennis balls and a big smile, “look what I can do.” As I walked up to the door she bounced up and down next to me, “mom, look who’s here, look who’s here!”
It has been almost two years since Maggie lost her leg and close to three since she was diagnosed with cancer. This happy golden retriever with the sparkling brown eyes has beaten the odds.
2/17/2011 Update. It has been over two years since I wrote this and Maggie is still cancer free and doing well!
1/18/12 Maggie sadly passed away a couple days ago. She was almost 13 years old and it had been almost six years since her cancer diagnosis. We are all grieving for her, she was very loved. Please visit Maggie Rose a beautiful poem written in honor of Maggie by her human father.