I’ve decided that dogs are the lucky ones. When we got Rio’s cancer diagnosis (the first time), I felt sick, scared, chewed up inside as if the very disease were eating away at me. She didn’t. She didn’t hear the doctors words. She just checked her for treats — thrilled when they materialized, and demanding when they didn’t. Her only concern through all of her treatments was whether she was getting her fair share of love and cookies. Not to gloss over her battle, yes, she had days of pain with the surgeries, and there were days where she was under-the-weather with the radiation and chemo, but she never had the despair of knowing that inside her the cancer was gathering strength for a new assault.
As a person, to hear the words, “you have cancer,” is devastating. Suddenly, you are thinking “oh, god, I’m gonna die.” Then every twinge you feel, every ache or pain, you wonder, is that the cancer? And if it is, how much longer do I have?
Before you start being concerned that I’m speaking from personal experience, I am, but it’s not me who has cancer. My father-in-law (whom I wrote about in my I HATE CANCER rant a while back) has waged a long and challenging battle with prostate cancer which was first diagnosed back in 1995. After surgery, he was in remission for a number of years, but had it resurface 7 or 8 years ago. He was able to get into a drug trial for a novel therapy about 6 years ago, one that my husband had been instrumental in the early-stage development of (not a coincidence). Obviously, the treatment was considered a success, since he was given that much extra time. But the cancer has reared it’s ugly head again — in his pelvis, ribs, spine, and skull, as well as his bladder and colon.
We visited with my in-laws over the holidays, knowing that this will likely be our last with Dad. And we made the 500 mile trek again a couple of weeks ago to celebrate his 83 birthday. The difference in his condition in 6 weeks was alarming. He was in a great deal of pain, and he was scared. He’d been feeling fine, he said, up until a day or so after we arrived, and then his condition seemed to deteriorate overnight. Both he and my mother-in-law were terrified by how quickly things had gone downhill. Both spoke of how they weren’t prepared, and that it had happened so suddenly. As a caretaker, I could empathize with her fear, but I was having a hard time getting my brain around how scary it must be for Dad. Rio had taken everything in stride, had never once been concerned about her eminent death and the enormity of what that meant to those of us around her. I kept thinking of the phrase, “be more dog,” and I wondered how we, being the cerebral creatures we are, can really do that. How can we put aside the fear and really focus on living each moment? Is this even possible? And how can I convey this sentiment to someone faced with the finiteness of their own life without sounding cliche and even callous?
In order for me to “be more dog,” I think I would probably need a lobotomy… I’m one who overthinks everything. The phrases ad infinitum and ad nauseum were invented for folks like me (as demonstrated by the length of my blog post). I would literally have to be unconscious not to think about life and death and grief and pain and how to cope with these. Dogs are oblivious to this metaphysical conundrum. I’m not saying that dogs are not conscious of death. I truly believe that death does affect them on an emotional level. Tosca and Zephyr have both been grieving the loss of Rio in their own peculiar ways. (You can say that it’s simply a reflection of how I’ve been feeling, but I would point to evidence to the contrary.) It’s just that dogs don’t hear the doctor when he says, “you have six months to a year,” and this is something which, when heard, can’t be forgotten. Dogs don’t understand what the word “metastasis” means — they don’t process the fact that the cancer is devouring them, one cell at time, and that at some point it will be excruciatingly painful as it does. They have no idea how scary it can be to face your own mortality, and the feeling of helplessness that goes hand-in-hand. They will never be fully conscious of the fact that every day takes you closer to losing someone you love, which, to me, is even more terrifying. And for that, they are so very lucky…