All I wanted was a belly rub.

Until recently I’ve never been on the patient side of the table when it comes to receiving a cancer diagnosis. That all changed when my little guy, Otis, developed a weird bump on his chest.  He has very sensitive skin so we watched the bump come and go for a while probably six months or so.  Then, one week before our wedding, the vet said he was concerned and wanted to do a biopsy.  Knowing Otis and that he tends to get bumps and lumps, we didn’t really think it was a big deal.  Until it was.

Otis
Otis

Otis was rushed into surgery five days before our wedding, and we received the formal diagnosis the day before our wedding:  Otis had a Grade I Mast Cell Tumor.  Thankfully, having spent the last two and a half years in human oncology, I knew that good margins and prompt excision meant that Otis’s prognosis was good.  We’d have to be on the look out for future possible lumps, but catching them early meant (generally) a good prognosis.

Otis developed a second bump on his ear not too long after his surgery in May.  He was the lucky recipient of nightly bump checks and we found this little bump hiding on Otis’s fuzzy ear.  I promptly made an appointment to see our vet and asked for a biopsy.  Because the bump was so small, getting a good sample was nearly impossible, so they asked us to watch it.  We watched it for a month or so until one day his ear swelled up and got hard.  I knew this wasn’t good.  We booked it up to the vet, got the screening biopsy and received a call a few hours later: the cells were highly suspicious for a mast cell tumor.

I felt prepared this time.  I knew what was going to happen, and that meant we’d be OK.

Otis went in for surgery 2 days later and came home without pain meds because the surgery was less invasive than the first procedure back in May.  Within 24 hours Otis was running around and acting like his generally goofy self, and seven days later you wouldn’t know this was a dog recovering from surgery.  He was cancer free and I was thrilled!

Then came the phone call.

I had just come in the door from taking Otis and his pug sister Emma for some exercise.

pugtato
Otis and Emma

It was a beautiful sunny fall day in DC, which just so happens to be my favorite season. (Side-note:If you have never visited DC in the fall, it is a must do!  Our trails are beautiful and Georgetown is so romantic and cozy on a fall day.)

My cell phone rang and I saw that it was our vet calling.  I cheerfully answered the phone knowing he’d want to know how Otis was doing.  I rapidly and happily blabbered on about how wonderfully Otis was doing and how this recovery was so much easier than the first surgery. Five minutes into our conversation it hit me:

We didn’t have the pathology back on the tumor sample from surgery yet.

It was like the air had been sucked out of my lungs.  The vet shared with me that we weren’t as successful as last time.  My mind went blank.  All the knowledge and experience I had in oncology seemed to suddenly be erased from my memory.  Apparently sitting in breast conference and tumor boards doesn’t prepare you for the moment when it’s your person/pet who’s the case at hand.  It might even make it worse.

Otis’s tumor margins did not come back clear.  He needed an additional surgery to remove part of his ear, and the grading was worse, a grade II Mast Cell Tumor.  Our brave little guy was headed back to surgery after only seven days had passed, and I was a mess.  Thankfully, Otis is making a full recovery and a grade II diagnosis can still be considered “cured” with excision.

This experience had a real impact on me.  It was very eye-opening.

I had always thought to myself: patients must just be sitting by the phone waiting for their pathology reports or whatever info they are waiting on from the doctor.

I never realized that post-surgery, it is possible to just go on with your life and literally forget that you don’t have all the information at hand.  I was totally caught off guard and devastated when we received the news.

This experience gave me perspective.  It motivated me even further to help the patients that I serve every day.

One of my biggest professional goals is to help empower patients to make informed decisions.  If I am able to prevent a second surgery for a patient, or relieve anxiety or guilt surrounding a cancer diagnosis, it’s a good day.  Every day, I measure my success on whether I am making an impact on other’s lives.  If I am able to help just one patient a day, I know I’ve done my job.

This experience also gave me a healthy little pug named Otis, who will never understand why he has to go see the vet, or why he doesn’t feel good afterwards, and who can’t wait to get his next belly rub, cancer free.

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