Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved My Life

“Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved My Life,” by Dr. Sarah Boston. House of Anansi Press Inc., $14.95.

If anyone should know how a canine cancer patient feels, it would be this author, a veterinary surgeon with a subspecialty in surgical oncology.

Here she takes the reader through parallel pathways, citing specific cases while detailing the form of the Big C she and her team are treating and the commitment of each owner, then inviting you to accompany her through her personal battle with thyroid cancer and exasperation with countless delays, reflecting: “The Canadian health-care system can take a serious health concern and drag things out for long enough that it becomes a life-threatening disease.”Lucky Dog cover

Conversely, Boston emphasizes, canine cancer patients’ lives hang in the balance of perception and health advocacy, often tempered by the owners’ financial concerns. But care, however, can be put on a fast track of days, not weeks, as she experiences in her thyroid odyssey.

Now a staffer at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine but formerly associated with the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Boston’s life takes an ironical twist in 2011 when she spots a growth on her neck and diagnoses – she ultrasounds her own neck at home with her veterinarian husband’s equipment – it as thyroid cancer. In the process, she has plenty of convincing to do with her treatment team through a seemingly never-ending, glacial journey of doctor and hospital visits.

Consequently, there are times she wishes she were a dog and could receive immediate diagnosis and follow-up care. Boston says, however, “When a human family member has cancer, people usually come together. Everyone is fighting on the same team. When a family pet has cancer, it is polarizing and isolating. People break into their strong opinion – weak data-based camps about the ethics, finances, and benefits of treating cancer in pets that they have never met.”

Poignant stories of her canine patients range from Carney, a St. Bernard whose radioactive treatments set off radiation monitors at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol station, to Riley, a blind golden retriever-chow mix who saves her family during a house fire.

Later, Boston herself undergoes radiation iodine treatment to rid thyroid cancer, requiring her husband to move out of the house for the first three days after her treatment. “At first, it is novel to be radioactive. . . . You can imagine the endless jokes and texts that ensue,” she says.

The volume is an intoxicating blend of tension and passion carved out in a friendly, first-person perspective. And as the owner of three dogs who have undergone a cross section of cancer-care approaches – amputation, radiation and chemotherapy – I can relate to the owners’ far-ranging mix of emotions from anxiety to a resilient can-do spirit.

In that respect, Boston is at her best when characterizing her patients and contrasting treatment from veterinary to human medicine.

“I am full of respect,” she writes, “and awe for my patients. They sail through surgeries with dignity and grace. They make no complaints and have endless forgiveness for the things we do to them. All they ask in return is a bit of hand-feeding and some human kindness.

“. . . All dogs and cats understand is their quality of life. They don’t feel fear when they are diagnosed. They don’t worry about death. They don’t worry about chemotherapy or losing a leg.”

Throughout this odyssey, Boston nicely captures frustrations and speed of care between human and veterinary medicine. “Being a veterinary (and I assume human) surgical oncologist is about knowing the limits. To do this job, you need a combination of humor, confidence, training, compassion, swagger, creativity, and surgical bravado. In short, you need mojo. Without mojo, you are sunk.”

Impassioned, yet sobering, “Lucky Dog” is a sharp, contrasting portrait of two species’ polarized medical landscapes accented with wit, wisdom and wonderment from first diagnosis to recovery.