Turning Tragedy into Hope for Others

After learning his dog, Rosa, had cancer, Scot Northern decided to take action, which led to $11,000 in donations for the Morris Animal Foundation's canine cancer research.

Anyone who has been involved in dogs for any length of time knows that the only thing you know is that you don’t know anything about the future. The best-laid plans fall apart, that special litter you spent years waiting for fails to materialize, this gorgeous puppy you had pinned your dreams on doesn’t turn out as well as you hoped. And sometimes, horribly and unexpectedly, dogs get sick.

We were having so much fun with ‘Rosa,’ the only bitch from the only litter I’ve bred myself in the last 10 years. She was turning out just as well as I had hoped, found a wonderful home in the Midwest with a talented owner-handler and was starting to win more than I could ever have hoped. We were planning her future show career and discussing potential stud dogs for a litter next year. Life was wonderful and everyone was happy — what more could anyone ask?


A Breeder’s Worst Fear

Then one day late this spring, Rosa’s owner, Scot, noticed that she was sensitive about having her jaw touched. That was very unlike her: Rosa loves cuddling. Scot noticed a growth under her upper lip, and a visit to the vet confirmed our worst fears: Rosa had cancer. A specialist diagnosed a mucosal mast cell tumor, 2 inches long and 1 inch wide, on the inside of her upper left lip, extending in the form of small bumps on the outside of her lip near her nose. A board-certified surgeon and oncologist confirmed the diagnosis, and after an unsuccessful two-week trial on steroids, surgery was performed to remove the tumor, as well as a portion of the lip. Although the surgery went well, the tumor extended closer to Rosa’s nose than anticipated: In order to not cut off part of her nose, it was impossible to get as much as the 3mm clear margin that’s preferred.

The stitches, the swelling, and also the canine that was now visible below her left lip after reconstructive surgery, made Rosa look more like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf and a pit Bull Terrier than the beautiful Whippet she had been a short time earlier. Rosa was hand-fed soft food, leash-walked and wore an Elizabethan collar until the stitches were removed — exterior stitches after two weeks, interior after three. There were complications: The area where the skin had been pulled forward and stitched the tightest developed necrosis, which means that the remaining blood vessels lost circulation, causing the skin to die and fall apart. Fortunately, the necrosis did not go all the way through the lip, and eventually the open wound healed. Throughout this ordeal, Rosa, amazingly in view of the fact that she must have been in tremendous pain most of the time, remained cheerful and affectionate, wanting nothing so much as a belly rub. (She became quite the favorite of the staff at the vet clinic!)

Because the “incomplete margins” meant that the tumor was not fully removed, Rosa has been getting chemotherapy treatment for the last two months — first once a week for a month, then every two weeks for another month. When you read this, the treatment will have been completed, and Rosa will have been given, for all practical purposes, a clean bill of health. It was wonderful during a visit to Iowa in August to see that most of the facial scarring is gone, and most of all to confirm that Rosa is a happy, handsome and to all appearances healthy Whippet once again. We are not anticipating showing her again, and she will not be bred because the cancer may partly have a hereditary component.


Turning Things Around

The guilt you feel when a dog you’ve bred is hit by something like this is awful. I have never known a young Whippet to have cancer before, but that doesn’t help. If you are very lucky, the dog you’ve bred will have an owner like Scot Northern, who wrote, when I tried to express these feelings: “Please don’t feel bad for me. Owning Rosa, having her as my friend … has been an amazingly wonderful experience. If I knew then what I know now, I would change nothing.”

But Scot has done much more than that, and this is perhaps the most important part of the message. Less than a month after Rosa’s surgery, something happened that gave him an idea. Scot is very active on social media, and Rosa’s fight has been followed on Facebook by thousands of friends, close and distant, involved in the same breed and in others. One of them is Eddie Dziuk, Chief Operating Officer of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), an AKC judge and a highly successful Beagle exhibitor. (Remember Uno? Remember Miss P? Both won BIS at Westminster, and both were co-owned by Eddie.) He made a donation in Rosa’s name to the Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) for fighting cancer.

As Scot said, “With Rosa getting so much support and love on Facebook, I think I could turn that into something good.” With the cooperation of the good people at the MAF, a website was set up that made it easy for anyone who cared to donate a sum, small or large, to help in the fight against canine cancer. The text said it all: “One in three dogs will develop it. Half of those that get it will die from it.”

The contributions, of course, would not be for Rosa, but turning what happened to her into something that might help other dogs in the future was a message that caught on. The word went out through both the Internet and traditional print publications, with a goal of raising $5,000 before August 30, the date of Cedar Rapids Kennel Association’s Sunday show, Scot’s local club. To add a little color to the pledge, Scot promised that he would have his head shaved publicly at the show if the goal was reached.

And was it ever! When it really matters, dog people show their true colors and get behind a good idea. Friends known and unknown, in the US and abroad, contributed. The American Whippet Club made a big donation; at least one all-breed club — Santa Barbara Kennel Club — did the same. One AKC judge donated his judging fee. When the initial goal was reached long before deadline, Eddie Dziuk jumped in and offered to shave his head, too, at the same show as Scot (Eddie was judging at Cedar Rapids KA), provided a total of $10,000 had been donated at that point. And Scot’s girlfriend, Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, an accomplished artist, donated a hand-colored Whippet print to everyone who contributed $50 or more.

As of August 30, more than $11,000 had been raised by Team Rosa for the Morris Animal Foundation’s cancer research. That’s an impressive sum by any standard and speaks louder than words for the concern and commitment of the dog fancy. The check was presented by Scot to the MAF representative, Leigh Elliott, at the Cedar Rapids KA show right before Best in Show, with Rosa present. (This was her first time out in public since the surgery. Due to the risk for infections, Rosa had to spend a couple of months at home after surgery with Scot’s two other Whippets as company.) Scot and Eddie submitted to having their heads shaved after Best in Show: Lexie Rogers, who is also a Whippet breeder, did the honors. I believe the Whippet breed judge (Harriet Nash Lee) and the BOB-winning handler (Amanda Giles) both helped a bit with the shave. Anything for a good cause!


It’s Not Over

Judging by the continued support from the fancy, there will be another check for cancer research in the future. If you want to help, go to morrisanimalfoundation.donordrive.com/team/TeamRosa — then click on “Support us” and follow the on-screen instructions to make a pledge.

The donations won’t help Rosa, but they may benefit other dogs in the future. For the present, Rosa is happy and healthy. We are grateful for that and hope she will remain so for years to come. One thing I have learned is that it never works to plan too far ahead…

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Dogs · Lifestyle