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  • Writer's pictureBob McBurney


It’s several months since I wrote something new for this website. These months have been difficult because our border terrier Ruby has been diagnosed with lymphoma cancer and with leukaemia.

We first became aware that something was wrong when we saw that her tongue was blistered. She wasn’t showing any signs of distress and at first the vets thought that she had licked something toxic. They were confident that her tongue would heal. This didn’t happen and so eventually, after scans and other examinations, she was sedated and a biopsy was taken. Unfortunately, this showed that she was suffering from lymphoma and further tests showed an overwhelming likelihood of hostile cells in her bloodstream which in turn indicated leukaemia. The prognosis was shocking; without medication it was feared that she might only have a few weeks to live, with medication her life expectancy could be several months. Her presentation was unusual. Only 12 other dogs in the world are recorded as having similar symptoms and therefore there are no meaningful statistics.

Ruby is seven years old. She has been with us since she was eight weeks old. We have only been separated from her for two or three weeks during this time. She has cruised Europe with us on the boat. Her passport has details of seven trips to Europe. Despite the fact that she is a creature of habit and would probably have preferred to stay at home and walk in familiar woods, she has been a great traveller and an integral part of our day-to-day family life. I suppose that I’m saying all this to build up to what I really feel a need to say, which is that even at the best of times the prognosis is very difficult to accept and sometimes - though we’ve had months to get used to it - the thought of her death is so painful that it’s unbearable.

Ruby began her chemo medication on the 12 December. She had a chemo tablet +2 steroid tablets daily for just over two weeks since when she has had the same medication on every second day. Amazingly, her tongue, which at its worst was a horrible sight, healed completely within the first two weeks. We thought that this indicated remission, which in our layman’s terms it probably did; but the vets told us that it was to be expected and that the sort of remission which we hoped for was out of the question. They told us that medication would go on for the rest of her life, that the lymphoma would always be there and that eventually it would become resistant to the medication.

Medication has become a ritual. I couldn’t bear the idea that Ruby might begin to associate my giving her tablets with discomfort or pain, so I decided I would turn it into a special occasion where the tablets are individually hidden inside very tasty pieces of chicken. The chemo tablet is toxic and so I put on latex gloves before handling it. These gloves have become an eagerly awaited signal for Ruby. Most borders are greedy and she is no exception. She is so excited that she swallows each piece of chicken in one gulp so that she can get the next one just in case I should change my mind and withdraw the offering!

She tolerates the medicine well. Occasionally, in the evening when she’s tired, she shows signs of distress, mainly panting. She sleeps more heavily than she did and sometimes I have to wake her up in the morning. In general, her energy levels are lower than before.

Yet, for the last two days she has seemed amazingly well. Yesterday she walked several miles in the woods, off the lead, sniffing the ground, chasing squirrels, showing how independent she is by going out of sight at regular intervals. In fact, behaving just as selfishly and wilfully (and therefore to us reassuringly) as she did before she became ill. At home, she has wanted to play. As a result, both Sue and I find it increasingly difficult to believe that she is not making a recovery. I suppose we are in some sort of denial, which is probably understandable.

I know that we are not the only people going through this. Many of the owners that I meet have lost a dog. In nearly all cases it has been a profoundly sad experience, recovery has taken a long time and the sense of loss has never gone away.

Eight years ago, before we owned a dog, I would have found all this ‘intensity’ so difficult to understand. Now, sadly, I understand it all too well. Dogs can steal your heart.

Apart from Ruby’s occasional bursts of energy, the only other small comfort is that one of the vets told me that they are always pessimistic when answering questions about life expectancy. Like the proverbial drowning man I cling onto straws like this. Even so, for the time being, our lives as well as hers, are on hold.

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