Veterinary oncologists are the superheroes of the Tripawds Nation. With brilliant minds working overtime to help us through very dark times, these cancer experts offer hope and understanding when oftentimes our friends and family do the opposite.
But what happens when a vet oncologist is facing her own cancer battle? Can she find reassurance in a bogged-down human health care system that pales in comparison to the efficient, compassionate care that her animal patients receive? Will human oncology medicine measure up to her expectations?
The book “Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved My Life” by Dr. Sarah Boston, takes us on a funny and unforgettable journey through the eyes of a brainy, lovely and funny oncologist. Any pet parent who’s been through the cancer experience or is going through it now will relate to every word. Here’s why:
Animal or Human Cancer Patients: Who Gets the Better Deal?
Sharp as a tack and ready to do battle with cancer every day of her life, Dr. Boston is a busy veterinary oncology surgeon who is well-versed in diagnosing cancer in animals. But during one typical evening while indulging in her “fantastically overpriced” French beauty cream, she happens to find a suspicious mass in her own neck. Her memoir begins with the shock of realizing she’s just made her own diagnosis:
“I’m spreading on the cream, banishing forehead wrinkles, eye wrinkles, and smile lines. I move on to my neck. Wait a second, what is that? I can feel a mass.
I do not say “bump” or “lump” or “swollen gland” because these fingers are trained fingers and I know instantly that it is a mass in my right thyroid gland. I know that it is new, and that it is not good.”
This marks the beginning of Dr. Boston’s bumpy ride through the human oncology medical system. We follow along through tests and appointments as she fluctuates between worrying about bothering her doctors too much, to becoming a ferocious advocate for herself when treatment moves at a snail’s pace and doctors patronizingly advise her not to worry – despite her gut instinct (and well-trained oncologist brain) indicating otherwise.
From “Diagnosis” to “Treatment” to “Recovery,” the book’s chapter structure alternates between her own cancer experience and those of her canine patients. From dealing with surgeries, to coping with the reactions of friends and family, to getting back into the “real world,” Dr. Boston’s story unexpectedly unfolds into a “How To” guide for human and animal cancer survivors, their friends and family. She writes:
“It’s hard to compare a dog’s experience of cancer surgery to that of a person. A few things make it easier on them: first, they don’t know that they have cancer, and second, they have less time to think about the fact that they have cancer (if they could know that they have cancer in the first place) because they move through the process so much faster. Some things are harder. I wish I could explain to them what we are doing, why we are poking them, why they wake up in pain, and why they are sleeping in a cage. It’s heartbreaking if I think about it too much. Most of my patients are used to sleeping in a bed every night with their owners. The cage and the solitude must be very confusing. Even for the same surgical procedure, the experience for the human and animal patient is worlds apart.”
As you read through Lucky Dog, keep a highlighter pen handy. This insightful memoir is filled with so many inspirational and refreshingly honest insights about life, death, humans and animals, you’ll want to remember passages like:
“If you are a dog with a mass or a lump that someone thinks is cancer, your path to diagnosis and treatment will be very different than mine, with one glaringly obvious similarity: every patient needs an advocate. This is probably more apparent in canine patients because they can’t discuss their clinical signs, take themselves to the doctor, or make any decisions about their health. They are completely reliant on health advocacy.
Sometimes the barriers to a diagnosis and treatment are too great and our patients lose before they even have the chance to fight. Sometimes just the word cancer, and not the disease itself, is enough to bring the dog’s life to an end, even if it is a suggestion and not a firm diagnosis. A dog’s life is only as important as we think it is, and it is only worth as much as we can afford, or choose, to pay. A dog’s death is only as sad as it makes the owners who loved him, and a dog’s recovery from cancer or fake cancer is only as happy as it makes the people who are cheering him on.”
Cancer Freedom and Life Lessons
Spoiler alert: Dr. Boston survives, and today her health is good. But surviving the cancer ordeal is just the beginning of her next chapter in life, which is a new appreciation for seeing and experiencing things the way our animals do; living every day to the fullest, without worrying about the future. Again, we learn from her wisdom as she shares insights about looking death in the eye:
“We don’t consider death very often, but contemplating your mortality brings a certain level of freedom. Appreciating life for what it is – brief and precious – is cancer freedom. We are constantly trying to forget that we are all going to die. What if we stopped protecting ourselves from death? It doesn’t need to be so morbid. It might help us focus on the things that are important and bring us happiness.
What would you change in your life if you were going to die in a few days? Weeks? Months? Or years? Well, the truth is, you are. How few days, weeks, or year of life does it take before you start living the life you want to live? Wouldn’t it be better to live a shorter life with happy purpose and freedom than the unexceptional life of faux-immortality?”
When we’re in the middle of life-changing situations that drain us of our energy, it’s hard to imagine picking up a full-length novel and actually getting through it. But after reading Dr. Boston’s book, we guarantee you that her story is hard to put down, and will serve as the best medicine for you and your beloved companions, human or otherwise. Pick up a copy of “Lucky Dog,” and get ready to laugh in the face of cancer!
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