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Pet Cancer Awareness Month hits too close to home

November is Pet Cancer Awareness month. I became all too aware of pet cancer at 5:30 in the afternoon Tuesday, Nov. 11, when my veterinarian, Dr. John Wallis at Gwinnett Animal Clinic, called to tell me my 13-year-old chow chow, Harley, had cancer.

I can't begin to do justice in a column to the 13 years of joy this dog has brought to my life. Harley has made cross-country, job-related moves with me three times. When I came to Gwinnett more than 7 years ago, I came with a suitcase of clothes, a couple of things to put on my desk at work and a 50-pound black bear of a dog that has seen me through more ups than I can count and downs than I care to remember.

Harley and I met in a small town in Texas in November 1995. I was moving from Texas to Florida and, having decided I wanted a chow, I found a breeder. I went to her home with full intentions of leaving with a white female chow. Every time I sat down, this black fur ball came to me, crawled in my lap and either went to sleep or looked at his litter mates daring them to make him move. I'd pick him up, put him back with the other puppies and pick up a white female to see if she and I were a match. Before I could return to my seat, here would come this puppy, a boy, very fat, born in 1995. I decided to let him pick me and left with what would be known to the American Kennel Club as '95 Fat Boy Harley.

Earlier this month, I noticed Harley was slobbering - even more than usual - after he ate. On Nov. 3, over my lunch hour, I noticed a tiny bit of blood around his mouth. I immediately took him to see Dr. Wallis, who found a black spot on Harley's already breed-standard blue-black tongue. Dr. Wallis told me he'd need to do a biopsy.

My heart sank. Something in me just knew.

"This is going to be bad, isn't it, Dr. Wallis?" I asked.

"It could be, but we'll just have to see," Dr. Wallis said in his comforting voice I've become so accustomed to since putting Harley in his care.

The next morning before taking him to Dr. Wallis for his biopsy, I took a snip of Harley's fur, just in case. Dr. Wallis said he'd been thinking about it all night and he also wanted to X-ray Harley's lungs to make sure Harley could, at his age, handle being under anesthesia. I think Dr. Wallis didn't have the heart to tell me he was also looking at Harley's lungs to see if cancer had already invaded his body.

Harley made it through the biopsy. His lungs didn't show signs of cancer cells. Since he's pulled off a few other miracles in the past, I had just about convinced myself he was going to pull off another.

But a week after Harley's biopsy, Dr. Wallis called to give me the news. The black spot the size of a quarter on Harley's tongue was malignant melanoma and more than likely what will eventually take him from me. The chance is slim that Dr. Wallis was able to remove all of the mass during the biopsy. If he did, there's not much of a chance he was able to remove it before the cancer had spread. While the lungs showed no sign of cancer, Dr. Wallis warned it could be there, just too small to see, and I know from losing loved ones to cancer that it only takes one tiny ticking time bomb of a cell.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, approximately one in three dogs will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, and cancer accounts for about half the deaths of all dogs over the age of 10. Overall, cancer is the leading non-accidental cause of death in dogs. And it's on the rise. The types of cancers that affect dogs are often very similar to those faced by humans.

I've seen cancer, like so many of you, invade a person's body with wild abandon, taking no consideration of the lives, in addition to the life, it's ravaging. I want to be optimistic, while at the same time realistic. I know he's 13. I know he can't live forever. I know I'll never be ready to let him go. But I'm finding it impossible to come to grips with the possibility that this creature won't just die peacefully in his sleep, at the foot of my bed, dreaming of chasing cats.

At this point, Harley is eating well - and Dr. Wallis said keeping Harley's appetite is vital. Dr. Wallis said he has no reason to believe Harley is in pain. I've prayed he stays that way as long as possible, and for the strength to do right by him if it comes to that. I won't allow my selfish need to not let him go anywhere without me make him suffer.

I've vowed, regardless of my schedule, the cold or wind, to take Harley for frequent walks. He's always loved his walks.

I'll mourn him when he's gone, not while he's living. I'll remember I'm lucky to have him in my life in the first place.

It's hard not to get my hopes up that he's going to beat this disease, when he's walking beside his sister, a cocker spaniel, Sophie, so proud, not missing a step, never inconveniencing me by getting his leash tangled around a tree. Or when he goes to PetSmart with me and kids run up to him and hug him around the neck and tell him he looks like a bear. Or when people see him, tell me he's beautiful, ask if he's mean, and I tell them he's never so much as nipped at anyone and they tell me, as they get down at his level to hug his neck, too, "I thought chows were supposed to be so ferocious."

Or when he poses so patiently when his mom talks Daily Post Photo Editor Jason Braverman into spending his lunch hour taking family pictures so I can have them to put in the memory book with that snip of fur.

Judy Green is the county editor for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail her at judy.green@gwinnettdailypost.com.