*Though today is June 28, 2012 and it has been more than two years since I received my breast cancer diagnosis, I believe the early days of this story are important, so I will do my best to recount them based on my notes. Welcome…and thank you for reading…*
So, today is the anniversary of Mattie’s death. Mattie was my miniature schnauzer, my first baby, my closest confidant. She was 10 ¾ and was with me most of my adult life. Through jobs, four homes, births, deaths and everything in between, she was by my side.
I came home a year ago today and she wasn’t quite acting like herself. And when I went into the bathroom, she lay on my feet and looked up at me. Her gums were white–a sign of blood loss. Her breathing quickly became labored and everything went downhill from there. The rest of the night was a nightmare. I called the vet, scooped her up, and we rushed off to the veterinary emergency hospital. Almost $700 and just a few short hours later, I would walk out of the hospital not with my vibrant and beautiful dog panting in my arms, but with a small cardboard casket containing the body of my special girl.
Unbeknownst to me, Mattie had cancer. Hemangiosarcoma, to be exact. Her spleen had ruptured and she was bleeding to death. Our only options were to let her die or consent to a surgery costing thousands of dollars in which they would attempt to stop the bleeding and save her life temporarily so she could undergo chemo. Before discovering this last chemo detail, I quickly said yes to the surgery, even though I knew that paying for her surgery (they required instant payment) would mean we would lose our home. I had to try to save her. It was only after I called my mother and told her what was happening that she encouraged me to ask whether the surgery would even save her life and what this cancer diagnosis would mean for her.
It was after this conversation that I asked what Mattie’s prognosis was. The news wasn’t good. She had a large tumor in/on her spleen. Once these malignancies rupture, it is very difficult to control the bleeding. They told me that they probably wouldn’t be able to save her because she had lost so much blood, and that if they did, she would require hospitalization and chemotherapy, likely for the remainder of her life. Even with those measures, she would only have a month, at best. I was shocked and devastated. Did I want them to attempt the surgery and bankrupt our family so that she might have a chance to survive and be put through terrible cancer treatments until she succumbed to the disease? Or did I want to let her continue to bleed to death until she was gone that night? Or did I want to euthanize her and end her pain?
It was one of the worst decisions I had ever faced. Horrible options, no happy ending. After questioning them repeatedly about her chances for survival and about her prognosis if, by some miracle, she made it through the surgery, I made a decision. With a heavy heart, I told them that I would let them put her to sleep. They brought her out to me. She was clearly suffering. She was too weak to lift her head or to bark, her favorite pastime. I knew she didn’t have much time even if I didn’t choose to put her down.
They told me to say my goodbyes. I told my little boys that Mattie was very sick. They asked if she was going to die and I said, ‘yes’. They were just 4 years old, but they knew that Cancer was bad, and they knew that when you were very sick, you could die. I was unclear as to what their understanding of death was at the time, but I thought it was important for them to be able to say goodbye to her. I didn’t want them to look back one day and wonder why I hadn’t let them see the special family member they had spent their whole lives with before she died. I also thought it was important for Mattie to hear their voices and know that they were there with her.
After lots of hugging and tears and “I love you’s”, I asked my husband to take the boys out so they wouldn’t be there for her last moments. They had wrapped Mattie in blankets and said that she would likely urinate and defecate when she died, so I might want to position her accordingly. Through tears I said that this was the last thing on my mind and I held her close so she could feel my warmth. They injected the medications into her and I was filled with a sense of panic. I told her how much I loved her and how I would always be with her and how sorry I was that I couldn’t have saved her from cancer or from death. It was horrible. I told her it was okay to go and that I didn’t want her to suffer anymore. She went peacefully and I sat, shaking and sobbing. I had tried desperately to hold it all in until she was gone so I wouldn’t scare her. I was successful at waiting, but when I let the emotions go, it was overwhelming.
As I carried her cardboard casket into the house that night, I could barely make it through the door before I set it down and removed the lid. I lay down next to the box on one of the two blankets she had been wrapped in when they euthanized her. I stroked her soft white fur and told her how sorry I was and cried until I couldn’t cry any more. I felt like a shell of the self I had been that morning. I felt as though I had lost myself and that I’d never be whole again. Even a year later, I still can’t believe she is gone. Or that she died in such a sudden and unforgiving way.
I still remember that night with such pain and sadness and guilt. It was not the first time I had lost I someone I loved desperately to cancer. And I knew it wouldn’t be the last. I hated the disease. I hated cancer.
And, at 32 years old, I had it growing inside of me, too. I just didn’t know it yet.*
[*And, to be fair, I still didn’t know it for sure on March 5, 2010]