Diplomatic therapy dog recovering from cancer surgery
Published: Monday, April 1, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 1, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.
Dogs can get cancer just like humans, so when Booster, an 80-pound golden Labrador retriever, stopped chasing balls, began craning his neck in a strange way when he yawned, and developed a bump on his head, the diagnosis was both surprising and grim: squamous cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer that in Booster’s case had started in his sinuses and traveled to his skull.
To save his beloved dog, Booster’s owner, Davis Hawn, who lives in Pass Christian, Miss., put out feelers to veterinary oncologists around the country. Doctors in Florida and Minnesota responded, and after a month of radiation therapy in Orlando to shrink the dog’s tumor, Booster was operated on last week at the Small Animal Hospital at the University of Florida to remove remnants of the disease in his skull.
“I suspect he will be very happy for six months or a year,” but Booster may live longer, said Dr. Nicholas Bacon, an associate professor of surgical oncology at UF and the surgeon who performed the surgery.
Bacon said that 50 percent of dogs over age 10 die of cancer — a high number mostly because dogs are living longer and actually getting properly diagnosed. Booster is 8½ years old.
Dog on a mission
In Booster’s case, had the microscopic remnants of the disease not been removed in the dog’s skull, he might have suffered from dullness or depression, Bacon said. And had he not treated the cancer at all, the dog might have lived only a few weeks.
That thought brings quick tears to Hawn’s eyes. Sitting in the lobby of the animal hospital Friday morning, Hawn, wearing a tie covered with dogs, told an oft-repeated story about how Booster saved his own life.
Eight years ago, Hawn, 56, was the victim of an assault and robbery in which his truck was stolen. Afterward, Hawn’s truck was retrieved from a junkyard during blazing Louisiana temperatures and a 10-week-old puppy just so happened to be inside. That was Booster, and at first, Hawn viewed the dog as a nuisance.
Troubled by the assault, Hawn said he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and bouts of severe anxiety that caused him to isolate himself. One night Hawn hit a low point, and the next morning, awoke to kids knocking on his door, asking to play with his puppy.
A little while later, Hawn heard a yelp — his dog’s — and said he had an epiphany that the dog was in as much physical pain as Hawn was in psychological pain.
At that moment, Hawn made a promise to himself that not only would he keep the dog, he would put it on a mission to help other people as he had Hawn.
“He kept pulling me back to people,” Hawn said.
Hawn enrolled in the Bergin University of Canine Studies, an Assistance Dog Institute in California, and Booster became a service dog. Hawn’s master’s thesis project, dubbed “Project Fidelity,” was on how dogs can be a “social bridge” — and be used to warm relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Hawn and Booster traveled to Cuba, visiting schools for the blind and the disabled. As a result, Cubans will travel to Bergin University this summer so they can establish a service and therapy dog center there to be called “The Booster Center,” Hawn said.
Hawn added that his message to students he has lectured to — here in the U.S. and in Cuba — is: “Even a dog can do great things in the world with an education. Go out and get your education.”
Hawn also said that dogs, even symbolically, are a good proxy for promoting peace because “they don’t hold grudges,” he said. “They’re just happy because they are happy in the here and now.”
Dog recovering from cancer
And Friday morning, happy is exactly how Booster looked as he waited to be discharged from the Small Animal Hospital.
“He wouldn’t know he had this done,” Bacon said. “He’s doing great.”
In a couple of weeks, after Booster’s scars have healed, he will receive a vaccine to keep the cancer from recurring. The total cost of treatments is about $10,000, Hawn said, adding that his pet insurance covers about 40 percent of it.
Dr. Elizabeth Pluhar, a veterinary surgeon and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, was one of the doctors who responded to Hawn’s plea last month and developed a vaccine for Booster using his own cancer cells.
Pluhar has developed personalized vaccines for dogs with brain tumors, putting them in remission for years. She’s optimistic about Booster since his tumor cells grew very well, she said.
“It will be exciting to see if Booster responds. I don’t know if it’s lifelong immunity, but it could be long lasting.”
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.