Angels of Hope: Gus' Tale as told by his Mom, Mary Jane Rizzella

April 2005
This is Gus’ story about how he beat cancer. First I would like to give a brief history of how Gus came into our lives. He is a rescue dog from the Long Island Golden Retriever Rescue. He was abandoned in a New York City park in the summer of 1998. After spending more than a week in the pound, he was rescued by LIGRR where he spent another month in a veterinary kennel. Gus was a young, un-neutered male Golden with deep red coloring and was estimated to be 2-3 years old at the time he was found.

The first time I saw him in September of 1998, I was struck by his beautiful red coat. He was being walked by a rescue volunteer and his long hair was blowing in the breeze. I fell in love with him right then and there. My husband, Mike and I were lucky enough to adopt Gus the day after we met him since we had already been cleared by the rescue to be suitable parents for a Golden. This was a very exciting time of my life.

Gus was dubbed the name August because that was the month he was acquired by the rescue. They called him Gus for short and we decided to keep his rescue name. He was so sweet, always wanting to please us, got along well with our resident cats and was so, so beautiful. He was exactly what I was looking fora perfect Golden boy. For the next few years, Gus led a happy but uneventful life spending his time hiking, swimming and just being a faithful companion to Mike and myself.

In the spring of 2002, Mike noticed a small growth just above Gus’ left knee and this discovery changed our lives. Over the next year, we had the growth checked many times by our trusted veterinarian of 25 years. He kept reassuring us that the growth was nothing. I felt there was more to this than it appeared despite the reassurance from the vet that my fears were misguided. As time passed and the tumor grew larger, I became more and more concerned.

By the spring of 2003, I could no longer be put off since the tumor had now grown to the size of a lemon. I felt there must be something wrong. My gut instinct and the love for my Golden boy led me to a point where I sought advice from another vet, Dr Chuck Timpone. He, unlike the first vet, listened to our concerns and did a fine needle aspiration, something so simple that could have easily been done earlier.

To this day, I can’t understand why our old trusted vet never offered this option and I truly believe that fate led me to find Dr. Timpone. The lab results from the needle aspiration were returned as mast cell tumor, Grade II. I must admit I knew very little about this type of cancer but I felt I owed it to Gus to find out as much as I could so he would get the best treatment possible. Since he was such an important part of our lives, he deserved the very best we could give him. The first hurdle was an immediate surgery so Dr. Timpone could remove Gus' large tumor. I was able to convince Dr. Timpone in allowing us to bring Gus home the same day of the surgery because I felt it was so important for him to be in his familiar surroundings overnight.

Don’t forget, he was an abandoned dog and he has a problem with our leaving him alone. Gus was a real trooper about the surgery…very stoic with hardly any complaints even though I knew he had to be hurting from the size of the incision which went from his knee to his upper thigh. In the next few days, as Gus recuperated from the surgery, the second set of lab results came back. The margins of the surgery were not clean and had traces of MCT. This meant Gus had to have a second surgery performed only one week after the first.

I was so distraught since I knew I had to put my sweet boy through the same ordeal all over again. It was so much harder for me to bring Gus into Dr. Timpone’s veterinary hospital for his second surgery but I knew it had to be done. I tried to explain to Gus as best I could that I was doing this out of love and to please understand. As you might expect from a Golden, Gus was equally stoic for the second surgery and again came home the same night with an even larger incision than the first time. It was heartbreaking for me to see my boy this way but he laid quietly on his bed and enjoyed having me cradle his head and gently rub his body to comfort him. Waiting for the new lab results seemed like a lifetime but when the results came back as a clean margin, Mike and I were so very relieved. During this time Gus made what I felt was a very fast recuperation from the surgeries.

Now it became time to work on a follow-up treatment plan to the surgeries. I began researching all our options for a good, safe and reliable follow-up treatment for Gus. I explored the possibilities of chemo-therapy, radiation, and Chinese herbal medicine. I knew of a veterinarian, not too far from me, who was a Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist, as well as being schooled in Western medicine.

I had only heard good things from people about him. He had patients who traveled up to three hours to have their animals treated by him. I also discovered he had a couple who made a five hour drive from Maryland to Long Island so he could perform surgery on their dog. I felt quite fortunate to have this vet within a 30 minute drive from my house. Chinese herbal medicine also seemed like a much more gentle and reliable way to proceed as opposed to chemo-therapy and radiation.

Actually, Gus’ pet insurance would have covered the cost of the two conventional modalities but again instinct led us to make the commitment to an expensive two year Chinese herbal program. We wanted the best treatment for our boy. Money was never an issue, we merely did what we felt was best for Gus.

So began Gus’ special relationship with Dr. Jiu Jia Wen. Dr. Wen immediately put Gus on Chinese herbal medicine for cancer treatmentseven large capsules, two-times a day. He also made changes in Gus’ diet to complement the Chinese herbs. One of the major diet changes was to eliminate poultry and fish from Gus’ diet and replace it with lamb, venison and some beef, preferably with no additives or hormones. Also added were a lot of raw organic vegetables which I minced up using a food processor.

So now, Gus hopefully was on his way to a healthier life free from cancer. During his two years of herbal treatment, the only side effect that I ever noticed was a positive onean increase in Gus’ energy level in the early weeks of the program. In fact it was wonderful seeing Gus' energy levels improving with this treatment and diet, and it reaffirmed my belief that we made the right decision for him. Gus cheerfully adjusted to this new treatment and he thrived. Other than giving him 14 capsules daily, there was no disruption in his daily routine. He still continued swimming in the bay, taking long hikes in the woods and playing as usual. We found administering the medicine morning and night with some yogurt made it easy. Of course Gus was very agreeable to this method of having a yogurt treat twice a day.

This past March marked the end of Gus’ two year treatment. He still sees Dr. Wen for recheck exams. At the beginning of his Chinese herbal treatment, he was checked every 2 weeks. Dr. Wen carefully palpates over his whole body looking for anything unusual. Gus’ rechecks have now been extended to every 8 to 10 weeks. Thankfully, there has been no reoccurrence of a tumor at the site of removal or anywhere else. The Chinese herbal treatment may have cost a lot of money, but to us, Gus is worth every penny we spent.

Even though Mike jokingly refers to Gus’ treatment costs as BMW payments, we have never had a single regret that we followed this course. Gus’ Golden heart and loving personality has not only enriched our lives, but enriched the lives of others as well, such as those he visits as a therapy dog. It was through Dr. Timpone’s correct diagnosis and Dr Wen’s herbal program plus our own 'dogged' determination that allows us to share our lives with our beloved Gus today.

Let my story inspire those of you who may have 'a feeling' there is something more to your pet’s symptoms than appears. Don't give up on your 'gut' feelings, seek other opinions and gather as much information as you can. And don’t forget to ask questions about anything and everything you don’t understand.

As I look into my sweet boy’s soulful brown eyes and see the love reflected back at me in his kindly gaze, I know that every cent, every trip made to the vet's, every trip made to seek advice was worth every penny, not just once, but a thousand times over. After all, he is my Golden boy.

A New Fight Against Cancer

March 1, 2007
When I last left off, my Golden boy, Gus had completed his two-year program with Chinese medicine as a follow up to his mast cell surgery. He continued to have rechecks and all seemed fine. During that same time, we put him on a well balanced diet and we were able to get him down to a normal weight.

Before and after photos . . . . He would do Jenny Craig proud

Those extra pounds were all our fault since from the start, we would indulge Gus in food to make up for his being abandoned. It could be likened to a Jewish Mother's chicken soup, except this had bad results with Gus becoming too overweight. But I have to say he was in his glory putting on the pounds.   

   We don't know why this boy is so tired acting.

Then in the spring of 2006, we hit another bump in the road. Gus did not seem his normal self. He was tired and generally out of sorts. It all began with a bout of colitis in March which was quickly cleared up or so we thought. About a week later, Dr. Wen brought to our attention the color and appearance of Gus' gums. He suspected something was causing anemia so x-rays were taken but nothing unusual showed up. But during this same visit, it was discovered that Gus had Lyme's disease. I speculated "Maybe that's the reason for his lack of energy." Again, we thought we had the problem at bay.

After being on antibiotics for almost a month, Gus' Lyme's disease treatment was almost completed and we were hoping soon that everything would be back on track. But sadly, it wasn't. Gus just moped around and seemed to have gotten very old, very fast. Mike and I were both distraught but again we assumed it must be old age affecting him, although we could not understand why it was happening so quickly.

We had no idea Gus was in any kind of pain until we brought him in for a sonogram in the beginning of June. Dr. Wen was still disturbed about his anemic looking gums and suspected either a heart based tumor or an abdominal based tumor. Late Wednesday afternoon on June 14, Gus had a chest and an abdominal sonogram.

A couple of hours after Dr. Wen performed
surgery, Gus was transported to the emergency
hospital for observation.

After the sonogram was completed, Dr. Wen told us his heart was fine but the abdominal sonogram showed an intestinal intersusception. This is caused by the intestines turning into itself, like an accordion which would cause a temporary blockage. Dr. Wen said during these times of blockage, Gus was in a lot of pain but of course being the stoic Golden that he is, he never really let on to us how much he was really hurting. I felt so badly that he was suffering so and I never had a clue. I always thought he was just plain tired.

That same night Dr. Wen did an emergency surgery to remove the portion of the small intestines where the intersusception was occurring. During the surgery, he found the cause of the intersusception. It was a spindle cell tumor which was attached to the intestine and as Gus' body was trying to move the tumor along, it caused the intestine to pull inside itself. At around 10PM that same night, as Gus was coming out of the anesthesia, he was moved into our car on a gurney from Dr. Wen's veterinary hospital. From there we transported him to a vet emergency hospital so he could be monitored and cared for post surgery in an ICU with 24 hour care. The emergency hospital had all the latest equipment so we felt comfortable as we could be about leaving Gus there.

    The day after surgery. I felt so badly for him.

The day after surgery, he was in a lot of pain. I knew this when I sat down next to him and he would periodically push his feet against my legs and once in awhile I would detect a groan but that was the extent of his complaining. I felt so badly for my baby boy, but at the same time I was confident his problem was finally found and once he recovered, he would be on the way to his old self again.

Eating ice cream two days after surgery.    

On Friday afternoon, we brought him home and he began a very quick recovery. Gus has a good attitude and I think this is a big part of the reason he recovers quite quickly from surgeries and any injuries he has gotten over the years.

There is one more final and unrelated incident to this saga. Eleven days after his surgery. Mike urgently called me into the kitchen to tell me "Gus can't stand up or walk!" I just couldn't imagine what was wrong with him. When I tried to help him stand, his legs were like Jell-O and they kept falling out from under him. His pupils were also racing from side to side. I was really scared. It was late Sunday afternoon. I knew Dr. Wen was in China so I called his wife, Karen Johnston, on her cell phone. She is also a vet schooled in Western as well as Eastern medicine. I told her Gus' symptoms and she immediately calmed me, saying "Don't worry. I am sure Gus isn't having a stroke. It sounds like geriatric vestibular syndrome, and it can be treated." She asked us to take Gus to the emergency hospital just to confirm her diagnosis.

Gus showing off his stitches.

Now, how to get an 85 pound dog into our car in the pouring rain?? We took a blanket, rolled Gus into it and tied the ends. Then Mike took one end of the blanket and I took the other. We must have looked very comical out in the rain with each of us hefting the ends of the blanket and Gus' nose sticking out from the opening on top. We managed to get him in the car and made the trip to the emergency hospital. There he was diagnosed with the vestibular syndrome as Dr. Johnston said. The syndrome is very similar to vertigo in humans so the reason he could not walk was that everything was spinning around. That also was the reason for his pupils darting back and forth. He was given something for nausea and we were told he should be over the symptoms in a few days. We took him home and actually 24 hours later, he was up and walking again . . . kind of a stagger but nonetheless on his feet. By the end of a week, there was no indication that he ever had this episode.

Each time Gus was ill over the three months, Mike and I both felt we could not handle another episode but every time something happened, we found the strength and handled it. It finally took Mike and I several months to recuperate emotionally and physically and not to mention financially from these crises with Gus.

Gus is now again on Chinese herbal medicine as a follow up to his spindle cell surgery. Since this is a different type of cancer from the mast cell tumor, the herbal formulation is different. We are again hoping for the same good results we got the first time around. This Golden boy has been through so much in the last five years and still he exhibits a warm, loving personality, eager to meet each new day. Everyone who comes in contact with Gus falls in love with his mellow, easy going self. Whenever he goes for his vet rechecks, the staff at Dr. Wen's office always want to give him a hug or a pat and say hello to him. And to Mike and me, he will always be our sweet Golden boy who never complains.

Knowing what I do now, about the difficult times and the money required for his medical and herbal medicine, I still would not hesitate to adopt this boy. We are very fortunate he has come into our lives for so many years and is still to this day giving us so much pleasure.

March 12, 2007
As I write this, my boy is fighting cancer yet again . . . but this time it is much more grave and I am not very confident about the outcome. A month ago he was diagnosed with liver tumors. There are several tumors and they are inoperable. He has been on Chinese medicine but so far, he is not getting better. He is just getting sicker and sicker with every passing day. I think he is tired and wants to be released from this life. My biggest concern is choosing the right time to let him go. I am always going to miss my Golden Boy, Gus as he was my very first Golden love. He will hold a very special place in my heart for the rest of my life.



Granddaughter Emma with Gus    

A Note from Rochelle Lesser

March 15, 2007
According to Dr. Wen, Gus possesses a predisposition to developing cancer. I am sure that it has only been Mary Jane's diligence and adherence to the best feeding, health and medical practices that he has managed to come through repeated bouts. But, on March 15, 2007, Gus' body could no longer wage battle, his leaving for the bridge, cradled in Mary Jane's and her husband Mike's loving embrace.

Here are Mary Jane's words . . .

Gus is at the Rainbow Bridge. He passed away early this morning in his bed, on his own, without any help. Last night after our calls to the vets, Gus had a couple more vomiting episodes and the last one ended at about 3AM. The last time he vomited there was blood mixed in the bile. Then he had labored breathing for the next 2 hours. I don't think he was in much pain at this time, as his legs were loose and relaxed. I laid down with him and massaged his shoulders and rubbed his ears and head. I also told him it was OK to leave. Then at about 5:15AM, he became quiet and made a few shudders over the next couple of minutes. I called Mike over and told him I thought Gus was slipping away. He died very peacefully with his Mom cradling him and his Dad patting his head.

Mike and I always felt that Gus was the bravest dog we ever knew and this held true in life as well as death. He feared no man or beast but was friendly to both. He must have known how hard it was for us to make the decision so he did it for us.

We spent the next hour cleaning him up and putting him into a heavy flannel blanket with the ends tied so we can move him to the car. We will be taking him for a private cremation and wait for his ashes so we can bring him back home with us this morning. Mike and I plan to be cremated when we die and have our ashes mixed together along with Gus' ashes so we can all be scattered together.

I still can't believe he is gone but he couldn't have done it in a better way . . . peacefully in his own bed, at home with his Mom and Dad at his side.

Here are some family photos of Mary Jane's granddaughter Emma with her pal Gus. Their similarity in coloring is amazing


Your choice turn off music or keep on.