Monday, 7 September 2009

Canine Oral Melanoma (Mouth Cancer): Barney's Story

Although anyone who's ever had a pet will tell you what joy they bring to your life, they'll also tell you how hard it is when they are sick. Here, Debbie Mecham tells the story of her dog, Barney, and his battle with mouth cancer - a battle that, thanks to drastic surgery, he's winning. Please do read her story and her blog and remember that no vet will mind a visit even for the most apparently minor symptoms.

Never did I imagine that taking Barney to the vet for a relatively minor stomach upset would result in him being diagnosed with cancer. Not stomach cancer, but an oral melanoma; mouth cancer.

Barney's a 10 year old Golden Retriever/Springer Spaniel. Until I was faced with this horrible disease, I had no idea that this was something that was more likely to occur in black, male dogs aged between 9 and 12 years. Unfortunately for us, Barney fit into every category.

He was diagnosed toward the end of May, when my local vet had spotted a black lump on his gum. Three days later, we were back at the vets for the biopsy. Now we had to await the results.

Finally, a call was received. It confirmed the lump was indeed cancerous. My world was shattered. Barney had been with me since he was just a few weeks old and although he's now 10, he's a very young boy at heart. I wasn't ready for him not to be part of our future.

Things progressed quickly after the diagnosis. An appointment was made for us with an oncologist at a specialist vets. It was a bank holiday weekend so we had to wait 5 days but even that was fast.

We travelled down on the Tuesday, met with Rob, and he went through everything with us. It was all very black and white. The tumour was 2cm in diameter. Anything more than 3 isn't really 'good' according to what we'd read and been told. No promises were made, but he talked about curing Barney, rather than 'prolonging' which made us feel more confident. He advised the best option for Barney would be surgical removal. This would be invasive and would change his appearance. The surgery he spoke of is called a 'Mandibulectomy'. This is the removal of part of the lower jaw. He warned us that Barney would look different, that a lot of dogs' can no longer keep their tongue in their mouth and that eating and drinking could be messy. We were prepared to go ahead, so long as it was fair to Barney. He assured us that after seeing what a young spirited dog Barney is, that going forward with this would be the right course of action.

We left Barney there on the day of the consultation and by 3pm the following day, his surgery was complete. His lymph node had also been removed as a pre-caution in case any cancerous cells had travelled.

We were unable to see Barney until the Friday, when we actually brought him home. I was elated, yet, nervous. Rob had drummed it into us during his updates via telephone that Barney DID look different, and that his tongue hung out a lot. They'd also removed more jaw than hoped to ensure the margins were wide enough to obtain a clear result. This meant that Barney lost 9 teeth, including his canine.

I sat in the waiting room excited and worried, a horrific picture in my head; he'd no longer resemble my Barney, he'd now be a subdued, miserable, lethargic dog... when all of a sudden, I heard a familiar panting and scratching of claws on the tiled floor and there he was. Barney. Just Barney. Yes, he looked different. His tongue was hanging out and his jaw looked exceptionally thin, but, he looked happy. He was as happy to see us, as we were to see him. His after care involved watering down his food and giving him antibiotic and anti-inflammatory tablets. I thought he'd come home with a bag full of medication, but less than 24 hours after surgery, he'd been given a pain score of zero.

A week later, Barney managed to burst all his stitches. This resulted in another 2 night stay at the specialists whilst he was resutured.

The same day, we were overwhelmed to hear that the margins of jaw were clear both sides, and the lymph node was also clear. The cancer had not spread!

Thankfully, Barney's story has a happy ending, as you can see from the picture of him, post-op and healing, at the top.

Many dog owners choose not to go ahead with this surgery because they think that it's too much for the dog to go through. In reality, as brutal as it sounds, it's really not as bad as you imagine. Within a few weeks, Barney was back on his normal food (with biscuit mixer). He's none the wiser as to what's happened to him, the only difference to him right now is that he eats outside, because it is messy. Once winter comes in, he'll eat inside again. Cleaning up twice a day's a very small price to pay to have Barney here with us, healthy, happy and enjoying life.

Checking your dogs' mouth is very important. If your vet offers dental checks, go along to them. Ask them to check your dogs' mouth when he has his annual vaccination booster. The earlier this cancer is detected, the much higher chance there is of the dog surviving. The survival rates of canine oral melanoma are low because more often than not, the tumours are not found soon enough and are too large to remove or have spread beyond the mouth. Barney's tumour was not there in March. I've gone back and studied pictures that were taken and there are no signs of it so it just goes to show how fast it grew in a short space of time.

So, if you only do one thing today with your dog, especially if they fit the criteria I mentioned above, make sure that one thing is taking as good a look in his mouth as you can get and if you spot anything abnormal, see your vet. A twist of fate saved Barney and we count ourselves as very lucky indeed.

For the full story, more information and more pictures, please visit my blog;

Please note that Dogs Trust is unable to give any veterinary advice at a distance. Please see your vet if you have any concerns about your dog's health or have spotted any of the symptoms above.
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