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Trucker and I share a moment not long after adoption.
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His Savior, His Life and His Friend: Losing a Dog to Cancer While Going Through Cancer Myself

What's it like losing a dog to cancer while going through cancer yourself? Tracy Aherns takes us through the story of her dog Trucker's battle with cancer.

Tracy Ahrens  |  Jul 27th 2017


I have finally found the emotional strength to share with you a new story about my dog, Trucker. Many have followed my stories of his antics through Dogster.

Sadly, this story is of his passing. It has been hard for me to relive it all, but I wanted his followers to know. I will share with you here a modified post I made to Facebook in January, shortly after he died.

Trucker and me in February 2013. He always looked at me like this.

Trucker and me in February 2013. He always looked at me like this. Photography courtesy Tracy Aherns.

In July 2015, Trucker developed a small, soft mass on his left upper leg and other similar masses on his body. All were tested and the one on his leg had mast cell cancer present.

He was operated on to remove that mass. His legs were long and the skin to work with was scarce. The doctor did an excellent job removing the mass and surrounding tissue and scored the skin to help it stretch out. I was told that cancer could return if the margins were not clear.

In June 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage 2B breast cancer. While I was undergoing chemotherapy and very ill, I noticed a bump on Trucker’s leg above where the incision was before. It began growing quickly. I made an appointment to see his local vet and the mass was tested, revealing cancer had returned.

I was told that he needed to see an oncologist at a veterinary teaching hospital over an hour drive from where I live. I made an appointment to visit them for a consultation in October 2016. I was too sick from chemotherapy to take him sooner.

Trucker didn’t have much loose skin left to remove the mass. It was certain he’d have to have his leg amputated to remove the mass and definitively diagnose the grade of cancer. The higher the grade, the more advanced the cancer would have been.

I discussed all options with the oncologist and asked her to be brutally honest with me. Trucker was 12. The maximum life expectancy for a dog his size was 8-12 years. The oncologist did a needle biopsy of his spleen that day to see if cancer was present. I was told that mast cell cancer ultimately ends up in the spleen in the advanced stage. She also biopsied an armpit lymph node to see if cancer cells were present.

Results showed that cancer was in the lymph node but not the spleen. Since it was already in his lymph node, we knew it was traveling in his body. Even if we amputated his leg, the cancer was probably elsewhere.

I chose not to amputate his leg. He needed to live his life as a happy dog in the last year or two remaining. If he had his leg removed, he would have still needed chemotherapy. Chemo would have been only 30 to 40 percent effective.

Factoring everything, I chose conservative means to treat his cancer. I also had to think of my own health battling cancer as I was facing upcoming surgery and radiation.

I discussed all of this with the oncologist and she understood my decision to treat him conservatively, trying to keep the mass at a smaller size.

She told me he would have 6 to 12 months to live. We discussed what “the signs” would be that cancer had taken over his body. She said the mass could abscess. At that stage, his health would be very poor and he could develop swelling in the leg, which would be painful.

I gave Trucker four Benadryl a day, which made him tired but kept the mast cells from getting too active. I also gave him the maximum amount of prednisone he could take to keep the mass smaller. Prednisone made him want to drink and eat more.

Trucker's cancer mass on his leg.

Trucker’s cancer mass on his leg. Photography courtesy Tracy Aherns.

In the last few weeks before he was euthanized, the mass started to grow and I could see the pressure on his skin. He was also pacing more because of the prednisone and possible pain.

A day before his passing, the leg had suddenly swollen upward toward his armpit. The skin was red and hot to the touch. He was more tired than normal. He laid on the floor gingerly and had trouble pushing himself up. I had to lift him from the floor a couple times. He also had trouble climbing stairs.

We went to the vet January 12, and when she saw Trucker she said, “He’s not the same dog.” I knew this. On the ride to the vet he laid in the back seat of my car and rested his head on the seat. He never did that. He always wanted to stick his head out the passenger window. I kept one hand on him as I drove, holding his leg with the mass in my hand.

When we got to the vet clinic he was slightly dragging his back leg when he walked.

I learned he was swollen in his shoulder, both sides of his chest had swollen lymph glands, his leg was swollen most of the way up, the side of his face was swollen in his neck area, his heart rate was 150 instead of normal 120 and he was having trouble walking with that back leg.

The thoughts from the doctor were that the mast cells had spread fast, his heart rate was troubling and could have been due to anemia, his abdomen seemed a bit distended (perhaps his spleen or liver was also affected now) and the leg dragging could have been due to pain or a neurological issue. Bottom line, the cancer had taken over his body.

He laid down on a large quilt when he was euthanized. He always loved blankets. He was strangely at peace and didn’t tremble or fight to get up.

Trucker never showed his age. He didn’t get gray hairs on his face until this past year. He was always active and loving.

When he was euthanized, the veterinarian cried before I did. She loved him as many people did. I told her I couldn’t cry because it would upset him. I would not cry until he left. I fed him bits of treats as he was put into a sleepy state before being set free.

I told him that I loved him, I thanked him for caring for me, I said I would see him again, that I would keep fighting and that he would not have to worry about me now. Just after 11 a.m. he went heavy in my arms and I finally cried.

My vet told me she felt I made the right decision based on everything she saw that day. He could have died at home or while spending the night with my neighbor who babysat him. I worked nights and was set to go back to work three days later.

I did not want Trucker to suffer. His health was declining fast and I felt this was the time – peacefully.

I knew when I went to that vet appointment Trucker was not doing well. I did not know it was that bad. I know he hid so much from me because he was taking care of me during my battle with cancer. Animals can hide things so well.

I pray he is held by Jesus and those who have left before me. I pray that he heard me, that he understood and that he knows I loved him.

Holding Trucker as he left this life.

Holding Trucker as he left this life. Photography courtesy Tracy Aherns.

The day Trucker left was brutally raw. I was on the floor holding him, my head covered in stubble after losing my hair to chemotherapy. He was also fighting cancer and I had to let him go.

I asked God to bring me peace that I made the right decision and that Trucker was now watching over me. His life was hard before meeting me (he was 5 when I adopted him). I did so much to bring him peace in the almost eight years we knew each other. He was loved by many people near and far, a life he never would have had.

Trucker had been discarded three times, forgotten by so many people, like a child bouncing around from foster home to foster home. He had severe separation anxiety and fear of storms. Then he met me during a pet adoption event and he learned about peace and love. He was free to be himself. I never raised my voice to him or scolded him when he acted out due to anxiety. I told him “I understand” and “It’s ok.”

Because of my patience, he stopped cowering and was thankful.

I understood him. I also fought anxiety in the past. Plus, both of us had been abandoned by people we loved over the years.

I shared Trucker with the world through my stories and photos of our life together. I was his therapy. He was mine.

As a friend said, “You were his savior, his life and his friend.”

Thank you all for loving him, too.

Footnote: Two months after Trucker died I met another dog, a senior I named Angel, who picked me as her new guardian. I plan to share a couple more stories about my years with Trucker and now stories about Angel who has a following on Instagram (@raisingmyfurrychildren) and Facebook (facebook.com/goatangel/).

Thumbnail: Photography courtesy Tracy Aherns.

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