Make Every Day Matter
Story and Photos Contributed by Jen Sotolongo
At 13.5 years old, we knew that our days with Sora were limited. To add to her age, she had battled a recurring nerve sheath tumor on her leg for three years. The cancer, more than her age, made us vigilantly aware of the remaining time we had together.
We first noticed the strange growth protruding from her right paw just before setting off for a two-year bicycle tour across Europe and South America. Despite the burdensome logistics of bringing along a 42-lb dog on an international journey, we refused to do this trip without her. If we go, she goes. That was our motto and as crazy as the idea sounded, leaving her behind was not an option.
We inquired about the odd growth on Sora’s paw during her final health check up, days before departing. Our vet brushed it off as a corn, and we breathed a sigh of relief.
The growth continued to grow, however, and eventually began to bleed. A visit to a veterinarian in a small German village suggested that we have the growth surgically removed and biopsied to check for cancer.
The test results confirmed that Sora did indeed have cancer. A nerve sheath tumor with a propensity to return, though with a low likelihood to metastasize. We could deal with annual surgeries, we figured. The alternative was to amputate her leg.
Like clockwork, the cancer returned a year later. Again, we had it surgically removed. The cancer would return twice more over the next year and a half. Each time more vigorous, hungry, and with a network of medusa-like spindles, making a clean removal impossible.
On the third return, we decided to try electrochemotherapy, a relatively new and low intensity cancer treatment that works in 85% percent of patients. It didn’t take in Sora, and within six months, the cancer reappeared.
We were old experts by the fourth occurrence. Surgery, recovery, radiation therapy, we knew the drill. This time, we thought, we’d finally be rid of this relentless cancer and Sora could live out her final years as a healthy senior dog.
The recovery from her surgery and radiation therapy took far longer than expected. Sora wasn’t allowed to run or walk long distances for months as the wound on her paw healed. This meant our hiking and running adventures dwindled and instead led us to try new activities like paddle boarding.
Gradually, over months, Sora returned to her usual self. She initiated play with our new puppy, Laila, ran zoomies in the park, and joined us for longer hikes off leash. Sure, she was slowing down, but she still had plenty of spark.
Unfortunately, our idyllic story for Sora did not turn out as planned. One day, Sora stopped eating. For a dog who lives for food, this was odd. After several visits to our veterinarian, running tests to rule out various causes, we saw her oncologist. He ran an ultrasound that revealed several spots on one of Sora’s lungs. He couldn’t say for sure, but he suspected that her cancer had spread.
I had made a promise to Sora that I would never put her through surgery again, our only option for removing whatever was affecting her lung. This left us with just one choice.
By the time we had learned this, Sora hadn’t eaten much for several weeks. Her body was weak and shutting down. This time, it was unequivocally apparent that only days remained until we would have to part ways.
And so we planned one final adventure: a weekend on the Spanish coast where Sora could smell the salty air, coat her fur in the sand and dead things to her heart’s content, and join us for one last paddle boarding excursion in the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. When we weren’t on the beach, we lay in bed together snuggling, or watched movies on the couch. She rested her head on our feet while we sipped beer and ate our meals. We awoke early each day to sit in the sand and watch the sun rise and illuminate the world in a warm pink glow.
A few days later, we made the choice to send Sora on to her next adventure. She was ready.
For three years, we fought for Sora and made decisions on her behalf. I am grateful to have had the awareness of her immortality.
Knowing forced me to value my time with her. I took a break from writing when she came into my office to say hello. I faced a fear of backpacking alone and brought her along on an overnight trip. We shivered outside at restaurants with patios so we wouldn’t have to leave her at home. We chose to car camp instead of backpack, walk in the park instead of a long trail run, and go by car instead of bike so that we could go together.
We don’t like to think about the fact that our animals live much shorter lives than we do. Sometimes it takes a disease like cancer or old age for us to realize just how finite our time together is. Some have years to ponder that awful day, while others experience its arrival in a sudden moment, far sooner than expected. No matter when that day comes, it leaves us shattered.
Rather than ignore the fact, embrace it, and use it to your advantage.
Let is serve as a reminder to value each moment, bond with your dogs, and appreciate the moments shared. It doesn’t have to be a two-year bicycle tour across two continents. It’s simply doing what works for you at the time. What matters is that you take the opportunity to choose your dog more often. Go on a backpacking trip together. Try camping for the first time. Opt for a road trip with your dog rather than a Caribbean vacation this year. Rise early to watch the sunrise over the mountains and stay up late to watch it fade. Take a break from work and head to the park for an hour.
By committing to more dog-friendly activities, the relationship between you and your dog will help guide those difficult decisions when the day comes. You will feel fewer regrets wishing you had spent more time together, worked fewer hours, or made a different choice.
With 2018 coming to an end, we have a fresh 365 days to choose to do with as we please.
What will you do with your dog?
Jen is the Chief Storyteller and Photographer for the Long Haul Trekkers. Born with the travel bug, she has lived in Spain, Chile, and New Zealand. When she’s not galavanting around the world by bicycle, she is running long distances in the woods, exploring her Oregon backyard, or whipping up delicious vegan meals. She is always planning her next adventure. Follow along on social (@longhaultrekkers) or on Jen’s blog.