Battle with Mast Cell tumors – In memory of Samantha, our gift from God!

Profile picture of Samantha who died of Mast Cell tumors...

Picture of Samantha

Picture of Samantha smiling. Sam died of Mast Cell tumors...

In Memory of Samantha…

“You wanna do what?”

Surely I had misunderstood my wife.

“I said I want to take Tim to have his picture taken with Santa tomorrow… Do you want to go?” Darlene asked.

So I had heard correctly, but I honestly thought she was joking because it seemed ridiculous to have a picture taken of your dog with Santa. Anyway, I thought I’d play along with the joke and said, “Sure. And after that, maybe we can catch a good basket-weaving competition! What a great way to spend a Saturday, huh?”

The look on her face told me she hadn’t been joking.

So the next day we bundled her little dog in the car and drove up to the Animal Orphanage in Voorhees where Darlene had adopted him several years before. It didn’t take long to get the Polaroid snapshot of Tim sitting on Santa’s lap (Wasn’t much of a waiting line as most sane people don’t waste their weekend free time getting pictures of their pet with a stranger in a padded suit, but I digress). Darlene suggested we “just take a look” at the other dogs they had available for adoption and I somewhat reluctantly agreed.

When I reached the fourth kennel on the left I stopped dead in my tracks because that was the kennel where they had put Samantha (or “Bear”, as they had named her). With long, wavy, jet-black hair and a big white star on her chest along with those beautiful brown newfie eyes – she was gorgeous! Unlike many of the other dogs, she was also very quiet, just sitting there looking back at me as I stood staring at her. For many years after, Darlene would say to her, “After he saw you Sam, he wouldn’t even look at any of the other dogs. He just stood there staring at you for the longest time. Yep, you were the one he wanted over all the other dogs.”

While it’s true I was admiring what a beautiful dog she was, the main thing going through my mind was trying to figure out how much of a bribe it would take to get Darlene to say yes to adopting her. Sam already outweighed Tim by more than sixty pounds and, at only 10 months old, she still had some growing to do. It seemed very probable that Darlene would be totally against the idea of adopting a dog of Sam’s size.

To tell you the truth, it didn’t matter to me how much of a bribe it would take; I really, REALLY wanted that dog! Somehow, I sensed that she was the dog I had waited to have for almost thirty years.

Since I was about 10 years old, I wanted a big dog, one that required both arms to hug; and I wanted a dog that was loving, gentle and had a good temperament. As a kid, my folks didn’t want me to have a big dog. They even took the small dog I had in junior high to the pound one day while I was at school (Took me a long time to forgive them for that). When I went into the military, there wasn’t an option of having a dog. Then when I got out of the military, a former spouse didn’t want any dogs. She was a cats-only kind of person, and she made sure that the small dog I had knew it wasn’t welcomed in our home (after we were married, of course).

Even though I had wanted this kind of dog from such an early age, I never prayed about it. For the longest time, I had the mistaken idea that one shouldn’t pray for something like a dog. God was far too busy to be concerned with trivial things like that. But, that was before I “discovered” Philippians 4:6, which says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God;” (emphasis mine).

I still haven’t figured out why God decided to bless my socks off by giving me the very kind of dog I had wanted for almost three decades. Even though I didn’t doubt the numerous scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments that make it very clear that God does indeed know all the secrets of our heart, it boggled my mind that he would actually prove that to me personally (still does boggle my mind!).

That’s why every day for almost nine years I would refer to Samantha as, “My wonderful gift from God”, It quickly became the rest of her name.

The Animal Orphanage had an outdoor fenced-in play area that Darlene and I made use of to spend some time getting to know Sam, and I was delighted that Darlene took to her so quickly (no bribe needed). While in that play area we decided on her new name. Even though she was a hefty size pup, “Bear” just didn’t fit her personality at all. Afterward we filled out the necessary paperwork, answered and asked questions, then agreed to come back the next day to adopt her, giving the orphanage some time to review our information and decide if we were a good match.

We brought her home the next day and let her explore the house so she could get used to her new home. Then Darlene noticed some blood on the bathroom floor and kinda freaked out, thinking Sam had cut herself on something. It didn’t take much investigating to discover that Samantha hadn’t cut herself – she had gone into heat. That realization made both of us REALLY freak out!

“Oh man, what are we gonna do?” I said.

“I don’t know – I’m not a vet!”

“Whaddya mean, you don’t know? You’re a labor and delivery nurse!”

“It’s not the same thing, Gregg.”

“Well, it’s a lot closer than my job in video!” I protested.

Somehow, we managed to make it to the next day when we could call our vet for instructions. Even though the necessary “apparatus” was needed for only a few days, it seemed more like a whole month and neither of us wanted to deal with that again. So we promptly made an appointment to have her spayed ASAP.

For the next several years, we enjoyed Sam as any dog-loving family would. Then in the latter part of October, 2005, we noticed a small lump directly above her right elbow, a lump that grew to almost the size of a tennis ball in only a week and a half. We quickly made an appointment with our vet to have Samantha examined. The tumor was removed and the vet was almost certain it was something called a Mast Cell tumor, but wanted to have a biopsy of it to be sure and determine its cancerous development. Less than a week later, the results confirmed that it was indeed a Mast Cell tumor, and at an elevated level, too (Grade 3).

***Learn more about Mast Cell tumors by clicking HERE ***

From what we read online, 90% of dogs with Grade 3 Mast Cell tumors don’t survive a year after diagnosis. Sam had extensive tests done at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital in Philadelphia. We were told that we had only three options for treatment; chemotherapy, radiation, or amputation of her right front leg. Since we didn’t want to put her through chemo or radiation, we opted for removing her leg.

All three options were about the same expense, and based solely on the cost of treatment, one would think that Mast Cell tumors are some exotic and extremely rare condition. Further research proved otherwise, these tumors are actually a relatively common type of canine cancer. There were a few days of wrestling with whether we should do anything at all since my first inclination was that it isn’t right to spend that kind of money on a dog. My way of justifying the expense was the fact that God got the glory through my daily (usually several times a day) acknowledgement of “My wonderful gift from God” and the almost continuous and heartfelt gratitude, not only for being given such a great dog, but mainly the way God proved to me personally that he not only knows the secrets of my heart, but he actually cares about the things that concern me. Who wouldn’t be thankful for that? (Many times I would hug Sam really tight and pray that God would accept that hug for himself as a gesture of my gratitude.)

Still the cost was something we had to contend with. After the initial bout with this hideous disease, figuring in everything from the first office visit to the last Prednisone pill given six months later, the final tally was almost exactly half of what it took to put a new roof on our house. We had committed to that just before discovering the tumor and couldn’t back out of the contract, so the new roof was put on the same month as almost all of the testing and the amputation were done. The following month’s credit card bill was literally breathtaking.

Darlene took Sam to Swedesboro Animal Hospital to have her leg amputated. After the surgery was completed, she called me at work to give me an update. I know animals are very resilient, but I could hardly believe it when she told me that Sam was up walking (hopping) around barely more than three hours post-op! The vet kept Sam overnight and I picked her up the next day. On the way there, I coached myself so that I would be careful how I acted the first time I saw Sam after the surgery. I did my best to keep her from sensing my level of shock at seeing her missing a leg. It was probably my imagination, but it sure seemed like there was some hesitation in wagging her tail when she saw me – almost like she was wondering, “Do you still want me?” So I tried to sound as matter-of-fact as I could when I said, “You know what, Sam? Even with just three legs, you are one gorgeous canine!”

Whish, whish.

“Yes, you are! And I’m sure glad you’re MY puppy dog!”

Whish, whish, whish, whish.

Sam was on Prednisone (a steroid) for six months – much longer than is usually prescribed for dogs. Since Prednisone can act as a mild chemotherapy (almost no side effects), the vet wanted to use it for that length of time to help diminish any stray Mast Cells that had not been detected. *Almost* no side effects, but still two of the most common: a virtually constant thirst and a voracious appetite. At the time, we were still using stand alone water dishes for our pets (before we installed a dedicated water line to a float controlled water bowl), so it was easy to measure how much water she was drinking – more than three quarters of a gallon a day! And her appetite! If I had kept her food bowl topped off, I’m convinced she would have let her head stay in that dish around the clock. It got to the point where we started calling her our 100 pound piranha.

Through it all, we continued to enjoy this wonderful dog and her interactions with our other dogs. Sam seldom misbehaved. On those rare occasions when she did, we would refer to her as “Osama Bin Doggin” and scold her. Her newfie eyes would narrow into slits like she was getting ready to cry. On the whole, life was pretty normal and we were beginning to think she had completely whipped the Mast Cell tumors until another one showed up in May of 2008. After that was removed, we had a reprieve until December when yet another developed and that too, was removed.

The next month brought a new year and some hopeful news from our vet: Red Bank Animal hospital in north Jersey was taking part in a trial test of a new oral chemo treatment for Mast Cell tumors that not only had few side effects, but had some very promising results in a smaller study. So a nation-wide study was begun to determine the real effectiveness of this drug and they needed volunteers. We wasted no time in making an appointment with our vet’s referral. More paperwork and exams were needed before Samantha was invited to participate. The doctor told us up front that the best way to save Sam’s life was to have another surgery combined with the standard IV chemotherapy. If we did that though, Sam would not be able to partake in the study since they wouldn’t be able to determine the effectiveness of the new drug if she had the standard chemotherapy and surgery as well.

I somehow got the idea that if this drug was successful and made available on the open market, it would be less expensive for dog owners to get necessary treatment for their pets, since the pills would eliminate the traditional IV method of giving chemo and the need for staff to administer and monitor the treatment. The thought of saving others from having to make the tough financial choices we made was exciting to me. I had often prayed that God would allow Sam to be as much of a blessing to others as she was to us. It just didn’t seem right to hog such a wonderful blessing to ourselves. So we denied the surgery and traditional chemo so Sam could be a part of that blessing to others.

The entire double-blind study was to be done over the course of 13 weeks. Darlene changed her schedule as much as possible and I put in for vacation days to cover the 2 to 3 times a week we would make the 90 minute drive with Sam to the hospital in north Jersey. Samantha was disqualified after just one treatment because the exam on the following visit revealed that her Mast Cells had increased more than the strict limit of 20%. We found out later that Sam was part of the group that did receive the new drug. Unfortunately, it didn’t have any effect on her. In February, still another Mast Cell tumor appeared in the same general area and once again she had surgery to remove it.

After that, we decided not to put her through any more surgeries. The only thing left was to just enjoy her for as long as possible. Our vet wrote a script for more Prednisone – only at a much higher dosage, and promised to refill it as often as needed while Sam was with us. Thank you Dr. Tomlinson, doing that bought us several more months with our precious puppy!

When I got home from work one night in late August, Darlene told me that Sam had started throwing up about 15 minutes before. Over the next few hours, Samantha threw up many more times – I stopped counting after the eleventh one. I didn’t know it was possible for a dog to vomit so often in such a relatively short span of time. Sam was so very miserable that night!

The next day I called the vet’s office to arrange to have Sam put down; after hanging up the phone I started getting ready for work. As I was brushing my teeth at the bathroom sink, I was thinking about how miserable Sam was the night before and how helpless I felt not being able to make her feel better. That, combined with the reality of the appointment I’d just made was a little overwhelming, and I began to sob. Almost immediately the thought came to my mind that “You mourn for a dog that’s about to die, but what about your co-workers, the guy who pumps your gas or the cashier at the grocery store? Most of them are already dead spiritually. So where are the tears for them?”

Even then Sam was a blessing to me. God used her to show me that my dealings with others needed attention.

Sam was feeling better well before the Thursday appointment I’d made, and our very optimistic doctor said that maybe she just contracted a 24 hour bug, so we decided not to have her euthanized at that time.

It was almost déjà vu nearly three weeks later, though, when in less than 90 minutes, Sam went from begging for some of the food Darlene was cooking (very normal routine) to hiding out in the basement, throwing up and losing control of her bowels. When I found her lying in front of the clothes washer, she was pushing both of her sides so hard just to breathe that she reminded me of a blacksmith’s bellows.

My heart sank because it was extremely obvious that she needed to be put down. Even when she tried thumping her tail against the floor when she saw me come around the corner of the basement, it wasn’t enough to undo my knotted stomach. I called the nearest 24 hour animal hospital to ask them to prepare to put Sam down as soon as we could get her there.

Getting her out of the basement wasn’t easy. Fortunately, earlier in the year we had purchased four body bags that have nylon loops riveted along both sides to allow sliding poles through to assist in carrying – like a litter. We had bought those specifically because of my concern of this very situation of attempting to transport a 107 pound animal. Even though it was still a struggle for Darlene and me to get her outside, it probably would have been impossible without the assistance of that “litter”.

Once we were able to get Samantha in the back of the cargo van, we didn’t waste any time getting her to the hospital that was less than ten miles away. Just before we got there, we heard a rather odd sound come from where Sam was in the cargo area.

I asked Darlene, “What was that noise?”

“I think she just threw up again.”

“What, has she been eating gravel?”

To me, it sounded like someone took a handful of pebbles and threw them across the floor of the van.

It was either at that moment or soon after that Sam died. When they rushed the gurney out to put her on, she was already gone.

There are adjustments to losing a much loved pet of almost nine years. We have to remember to lock our doors now when we leave the house. Something we didn’t have to do for all the time we had Sam. She provided more security than any dead bolt since her low, throaty growl could be very intimidating; just ask the man who came to do a city inspection of our home when we were thinking of selling. Sam was barely out of puppyhood when that happened and she didn’t hesitate to let the guy know she knew he was there and she wasn’t too happy about it. This big, burly guy froze like a statue when he heard Sam’s “rumbling thunder”. Didn’t even turn his head, he just looked at me from the corner of his eye and asked with a slight quiver, “What was THAT?

We miss that long-furred baseball bat of a tail thumping against the floor when we mentioned her name or when I would sing some of my silly songs about her.

Three-legged dogs make a distinctive sound when they go up and down steps, or just hopping down the hallway to get to the water dish. We miss that, too.

Most of all, we miss needing to use both arms to hug a big, warm and furry pup that shared our lives for almost nine years.

The picture in the middle at the top of the page is the artwork proof for Sam’s black granite memorial stone. She truly was our wonderful gift from God and it was important to us to have that etched in granite to make a permanent declaration of that truth.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see Samantha again. The Bible isn’t clear about what happens to our beloved pets when they die. But I am certain of this, because God promises it in His Word:

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”

And I can’t wait!

Samantha Phillips - Our wonderful gift from God