Authors: Teresa J. Rhyne
Copyright © 2014 by Teresa J. Rhyne
Cover and internal design © 2014 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Laura Duffy
Cover image and author photo © Kimberly Saxelby/True Emotions Photography
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This book is a memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollections of experiences over a period of years. Some names and characteristics have been changed, some events have been compressed, and some dialogue has been re-created.
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For the animals.
And always, for Chris, my favorite animal.
“I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.”
This is my memoir. As such, it is my story from my experiences and memories, and mine alone. Most names have been changed, some characters are composites of people, and occasionally, for the sake of story, timelines or dates of events have been altered or events combined—because life doesn’t always make sense, but a book should.
This is my memoir. As such, it is not a how-to guide, nor a cookbook, nor a psychological thriller. (You were expecting that, right?) This is the story of how I came to live a more compassionate lifestyle, inspired by some adorable beagles, and the struggles we all had along the way. It’s also a love story. But in neither instance do I intend to be giving you advice. (Maybe warnings, but not advice.)
This is my memoir. As such, I hope it brings you pleasure while you read it. And if it causes you to think about the animals a little more than you used to, well, that will bring me pleasure in return.
My dog Seamus and I were sitting in the backyard of a friend’s home—the same home where I’d celebrated the end of my cancer treatments in a
-themed party—when I saw red. It was a bright, clear fall day in 2011. As Seamus wiggled in my lap, the sun illuminated a pool of blood deep in his eye.
I immediately denied what I was seeing, unable to believe there could be another health issue.
. This was a shadow, a reflection of my fuchsia sweater, an illusion. This was anything but what I knew it was. If I hadn’t been so shocked, I would have seen the irony in finding that spot in his eye just then.
We were posing for the author photo for my memoir about how he—my beagle, my love, my hilarious, spirited guide to life—had survived his own cancer and given me the strength and courage to survive mine. As soon as the photo shoot was over, in what was a familiar routine for me, I scheduled a vet appointment. The vet just as quickly sent us to a specialist.
I was back in a sterile, white room with my dog—trusting and fearless—standing on a metal table. The initial evaluation was done by an intern. He was polite, quiet, and appeared to be thorough in his exam, but he said very little to me. Seamus stayed calm on the table, as he always did, glancing my way only occasionally. When the exam was over, Seamus howled.
“He wants a cookie,” I said. “He’s well-trained to know he gets a treat when the exam is over. Preferably a green dog bone, if you have one.”
The intern smiled. “Poor guy. I’ll get him a treat, but I don’t know about green. I’ll bring it back when the doctor comes in.”
Several minutes later, the intern, the doctor, and a tech came in the room—an entire, foreboding team. The intern handed Seamus a cookie. It wasn’t green, but Seamus merrily took it and howled for more. The intern laughed and petted Seamus’s head. The doctor promised he’d give him more later. Other than that, though, the doctor was all business. And maybe that should have been a clue too.
Seamus had first been diagnosed with cancer a year after I adopted him. He was only two, maybe three years old at the time. He spent a year in treatment—two surgeries, many months of chemotherapy, and then another year and a half of follow-ups and blood tests before he was deemed cancer-free and released from treatment. Six months after that, I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer and spent nearly a year in treatment myself. I was still going for semiannual oncology checkups. So, it’s not like I was new to doctors and devastating diagnoses. You’d think I’d get used to this.
“I don’t like this,” he said, peering with the ophthalmoscope, its pinpoint light shining in Seamus’s left eye. “Did you see this…?” And here he switched into the medical jargon that some medical personnel use so easily without any thought that the patient—or, in this case, the patient’s guardian—cannot understand it and therefore would only be frightened by it.
“I did see that,” the intern said, glancing quickly in my direction and away again.
there’s something to see. It’s why I brought him in
. I tried to stay calm, but the doctor’s approach was not helping.
“Yeah, that’s not good at all. I don’t like what I’m seeing,” he said to no one in particular as he was still looking into Seamus’s eye.
I wanted to smack him.
I’m sitting right here. Hold your editorial until you are ready to talk to me
. But I have a history of wanting to lash out at doctors. I’d felt that way about Seamus’s first oncologist (I not so fondly referred to her as Dr. Sorority Bitch) and the oncologist I did chemo with (Dr. B…no explanation needed, I trust, though clearly I could use some creativity in my anger).
The intern switched the exam room lights back on.
Finally, the doctor turned to me. “This isn’t good. What I see is most likely—I’m almost certain—a melanoma.”
I had long ago noticed, in my vast experience with cancer, that very few people, medical personnel included, actually say the “C” word.
“Cancer?” I said.
“I’m afraid so.”
Shit! I am so sick of cancer. How bad is it? This cannot be happening. How bad is it? Can. Not. Be happening. Not again. How bad is it?
I stayed quiet, stroking Seamus’s head while I steadied myself. “Can you give him that other cookie now?”
The doctor pulled a dog biscuit from the pocket of his lab coat and fed it to Seamus, who gladly ate it in only a few quick bites and then howled, wagging his tail.
“He’s a really cute dog,” the doctor said.
“He is. And he has already survived cancer once—a mast cell tumor. He’s been through two surgeries and months of chemotherapy.” While one hand held Seamus, my other was clenched in a fist at my side. “Is this related to that cancer? A recurrence now—seven years later?”
The doctor’s eyebrows shot up, but he was quick to recover. “No, not related. This is a different cancer altogether. He’s just not very lucky.”
It was only luck or, more to the point, bad luck that determined who got cancer? “I guess I’m not very lucky either. I’m also a cancer survivor.”
Now the doctor’s surprise stayed on his face. “Wow. Um, wow. That’s a lot of cancer in one house. Do you live near a nuclear reactor or something?”
I was no amateur at hearing a cancer diagnosis—I’d experienced it done both better and worse than this. I couldn’t tell if he thought he was making a joke, but whether he was or not, it was an entirely inappropriate comment. Now we’d swung from “luck” to where we live maybe being the cause of cancer. Time to bring the doc’s focus back to where it should be—to
“So where do we go from here? What’s the treatment? Do you know for certain it is cancer?”
He gave a long explanation, with the usual amount of confusing and frightening medical terms. It came down to surgery. The doctor was 99 percent certain there was a melanoma on Seamus’s eye. Whatever it was, it had to be removed. Chemo and radiation were not options for this cancer. They could remove the eye and likely be done with it. Or they could try shaving the tumor off and saving the eye, but if it grew back, they’d have to remove the eye then. Chances were it would grow back; the only issue would be how long it took. The longer it took, of course, the longer he’d keep the eye—could be weeks, could be months, could be years.
Seamus was nine, maybe ten, years old then. Since I’d adopted him from a shelter, I was uncertain of his actual age. But still, at nine or ten, he could live four, five years longer, maybe more. Trying to save the eye seemed the right thing to do. If he were older, maybe I’d worry more about the possibility of two surgeries and the toll that would take. But he’d been such a trooper during all he’d been through that I had great faith in his recovery abilities. Plus, I’d become accustomed to beating the cancer odds, maybe even, inexplicably, cocky about it.
“I want to try to save his eye,” I said.
“That’s what I’d do too.” The doctor moved toward the door. “We’ll get you an estimate of the cost and schedule the surgery.”
We scheduled the surgery for December. I considered waiting until January, because December is when all bad things seem to happen in my life. My entire family has a bad history with the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas—accidents, deaths, cancer diagnoses (note the plural on all of those events). I dread the entire holiday season, but particularly the month of December. And now, another reason to despise it. But I didn’t want to just leave cancer hanging around in the poor dog’s eye any more than I had wanted to leave it hanging out in my right breast when I was diagnosed in December 2008.
Seamus, in his usual style, and as I had counted on, recovered from this surgery quickly. But he still needed care—bandages changed, pain medication, and eye drops—so I resumed our old routine. I was his caretaker, working from home, and he was his rascally self, using his diabolical cuteness and now his new swashbuckling eye patch to work me over for more treats. And for those days, at home with Seamus, the doctor’s words ate at my brain.
“Do you live near a nuclear reactor or something?”
We didn’t, of course. Does anybody anymore? I lived in a townhome, up on a ridge in Riverside, a suburb in Southern California (usually described as halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs). I lived there with Seamus and Chris, the beagle and human loves of my life. There was no nuclear reactor. But three cancers in one household over seven years was a lot of cancer. Too much cancer.
I doing something wrong? And, of course, I’d tied my own cancer recovery so closely to Seamus’s it was difficult not to think I might have a recurrence too. “The dog lived and so will I” had been my mantra as I went through a breast lumpectomy, three months of chemotherapy, and thirty-six rounds of radiation. “The Dog Lived” was the name of my blog, and eventually
(and So Will I)
was the name of the memoir I’d written. And now the dog had cancer again. It was impossible not to feel “…and so will I.” Maybe I had done everything wrong.
With Seamus’s original cancer and again with my own, I never spent a lot of time wondering why the cancer had occurred. I didn’t spend time attaching blame or wondering why me. But now it was getting hard to avoid the thought that maybe there
a reason this was happening to us.
wrong? Why was this happening?
When I had finished my cancer treatments, I quickly resumed my old lifestyle. I had not had the great epiphany one hears many cancer patients have: I kept waiting for the urge to run marathons, rescue orphans, or quit my job and travel the world, but I was waiting while reading magazines, sipping a martini, and feasting on fried calamari. And my cancer had been triple-negative—which means not responsive to hormones—so the doctors had not given me any dietary restrictions. Naturally, I used that as an excuse for many celebratory meals of dubious nutritional value. Now, though, with Seamus on the couch next to me, curled up and sleeping soundly, his eye patch clearly visible, the bottles of pain medication and antibiotics lined up on the kitchen counter, and with me only a few months away from my own oncology visit, I knew I had to do something. I had to change. I vowed—for Seamus, for me, for our household—that I’d find a way to do better.
I’d find a way to fight for us all.