Our sweet Sting has cancer. Actually he has two different types of cancer…my little over achiever. Most of our Play All Day family knows Sting. He has helped evaluate most every dog that has joined our Play All Day family. His sweet and playful disposition perfectly suited him for his position of Chief Fun Officer.
I have always longed to have my dogs live to a ripe old age of 14 or 15, but that has not been our luck. Our first Golden Rane, died at age 10 of a rare and aggressive Leukemia. Our second Golden Stepper, died at age 9 of Multiple Myeloma (a very rare cancer for dogs). Our Aussie Gus, gave it the old college try, making it to what we think was age 13. We had high hopes for Sting, a vital, healthy boy, who showed no signs of slowing down on his 10th birthday. Hiking with his younger brother Dave, he would have energy to spare when Dave was ready to quit. So, in January, when a suspicious mass in his mouth showed to be Fibrosarcoma, we were surprised. And then during the staging process for his mouth cancer, we found a separate and more daunting type of cancer called Hemangiosarcoma. Needless to say, we were shocked and I can honestly say that I was angry. I was angry that we were not going to get to enjoy his senior years, but I was angrier that he would have to deal with what was to come. We were given a prognosis of 6-9 months.
What is different this time around is that Sting has a longer prognosis than our other dogs who had cancer. They both died within a few short months of their diagnosis. With our previous boys, we barely had time to come to grips with their diagnosis and then they were gone. That is a crazy kind of pain in itself. You can’t help but feel cheated. But on the other hand, you don’t have to deal with a long drawn out illness, watching the inevitable suffering that accompanies terminal illness.
All of one’s life experiences can make a contemplative person such as I stop and consider life’s little mysteries. So what is better for those of us left behind…an abrupt departure or a chance to let go slowly? As an oncology nurse for 20+ years, I faced this all the time and helped families to deal with it. In the human world, I not only saw the pain of dealing with cancer, but also the many gifts that it brought to people’s lives. That is an odd statement; I know…but believe me when I say that I saw it happen many times. A chronic, terminal illness makes people stop and consider their lives and often helps to put things in perspective. There is no one right perspective, only our own individual experiences. Regardless, chronic terminal illness often helps people to achieve this perspective for both the afflicted and the family members.
Sting was diagnosed in January and we have been fighting this since that time with two surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy. But now we see that the end of his sweet life is coming sooner than later. There are no other treatment options. He doesn’t know that and I’m glad for it. Every day is still a new adventure to him. But for those of us that love him, it is both a gift and torture to watch what is happening. The optimist in me recognizes the gift…the melancholy side of me looks at the disfiguration of his face and his lessened energy and sees only the worst.
Sting has a very special spot in my heart, more so than any other dog with whom I’ve shared my life. Dog people refer to this as your “Heart Dog”, that one special dog in a lifetime. For my husband Will, Stepper was his Heart Dog. He still grieves for him deeply, 11 years after his death. So, what would I choose for both me and for Sting? Would I choose a quick departure or letting go slowly? Now that I have experienced both, I can honestly say that letting go slowly is better for me.
These months of letting go slowly have given me a gift. With the knowledge that my time with Sting was shortened, I was able to plan time with him doing the things we both love. We went to Lake Michigan in the springtime with one of his favorite people and his buddy Blaze. We hiked with people who love him dearly. We stop at the Dairy Queen more often. We cuddle and give massages frequently. We bought a kiddie pool for the back yard. We sleep in (Sting is not a morning dog). We have gone fishing every chance we had. We planned a trip to Minnesota for fishing and swimming. I wrote this post sitting on the shores of a lake in the beautiful North woods of Minnesota, with Sting exhausted at my feet each day, after fishing, swimming, eating junk food, cuddling in the cool mornings, and feeling all of the love he can from two parents not distracted by the everyday world. He doesn’t know he’s sick, let alone dying. He just feels loved. And this wonderful opportunity to let him go from our lives slowly, gave us this gift. My anger over loss has dissipated and I have gained gratitude for a time to celebrate the life of this amazing dog who has given so much to me and everyone whose life he has touched. I choose letting go slowly.
Note: We are home from Minnesota and in the past week, Sting is experiencing a robust respite from the symptoms of his cancer. Just yesterday, he went on a two mile hike, with energy to spare at the end. Obviously, he’s not ready to leave quite yet.