BOOKS She wouldn’t treat a dog that way
Book chronicles vet’s exasperating bout with cancer
Sarah Boston was following her usual daily routine in the battle against time.
She was applying expensive skin cream on her face and especially on her neck. She’s a little vain about her graceful neck and wanted to keep it looking youthful.
That’s when she discovered the lump. It had not been there the day before. It was also worrisome because the lump appeared to be on her thyroid. Boston knows a thing or two about cancer because she is an oncologist — a canine oncologist who is used to finding tumours on her fourlegged patients. And while people differ from dogs, there was enough similarity to send Boston to her doctor looking for some immediate action.
That did not happen. Instead Boston, who is originally from Saskatchewan and was in southern Ontario at the time, met a system that was, in her case, slow, bureaucratic and, in some instances, downright unsupportive, patronizing and even dismissive.
It is also an uneven system. In her new book, Boston recounts sharing a hospital room with a woman from Poland, a newcomer to Canada, whose breast cancer was not treated quickly, while a friend had his testicular cancer dealt with very quickly.
Another possible issue facing Boston is the “funny” relationship between veterinarians and doctors. Some doctors respect the training vets receive, she says. Others don’t. “They are like: ‘Oh, you do chemo on dogs, that’s so cute.’”
For a person who treats her cancer patients with speed and caring, the wait times around her own cancer were, frankly, difficult to understand. And the attitude she met was maddening. She says she felt like she was treated as a hypochondriac. And, “my endocrinologist literally patted me on the knee and said, ‘You don’t have cancer.’”
She started to push and began a diary of sorts about her journey through the medical system, the origins of what became a book called Lucky Dog.
The book is garnering a lot of attention with appearances on national television and radio. For Boston, who now is at the University of Florida, the attention has been a surprise.
But she also thinks her experience is not unique.
“I really didn’t start out to write a book,” Boston says. “I really just started to write for myself. It was such a strange experience to be someone who treats cancer in animals and then to think I had cancer. I was pretty frustrated with the wait times and it was something to do while waiting.”
She started sending the writing to close friends and her parents to let them know what was hap- Sarah Boston (House of Anansi) pening. And she kept on writing after each treatment. And then she had a chance meeting with the writer Noah Richler at a fundraising dinner and told him her story.
“I didn’t know who he was,” she said.
Boston was in attendance to read about her experience. She read what would become the first chapter of her book and sat down. Richler leaned over and said he would put her in touch with the House of Anansi. He was as good as his word. And so, surprisingly, a book was born.
What takes the book beyond a useful rant about the problems of Canada’s health-care system are the stories about dogs.
“Ultimately, I was really struck by the fact that the way that I treat thyroid cancer in a dog is that I can have them in hospital and have the mass removed in two or three days.” But her own experience was drawn out and aggravating.
The other thing that is evident in reading Boston’s memoir is that there is a culture that has emerged with differing classes of illness and treatment and concern. Thyroid cancer, maybe not so bad, breast cancer very public, very important, very well funded. The result is that some cancers are not treated with the same urgency as others. And that, for Boston, and likely for anyone suffering from the illness, is troubling.
That makes canine cancers such an interesting contrast with human cancers. Dogs don’t know cancer. They just know they feel bad. When they are treated, they feel better. Ignorance is indeed bliss.
It’s the dog’s owner that feels the emotional pain and worry of their dog’s illness. Boston calls them parents in her book.
Take the case of Carney the St. Bernard. She had developed a case of bone cancer in one of her forelegs. Carney needed help and Boston was involved in a centre where a new treatment was being tested.
Her “dad” Marty, who lived several hours from Boston’s clinic, asked to have his dog treated. Boston said sure and he proceeded to drive the dog to and from appointments and pony up a lot of money. The treatment forestalled Carney’s death by a year-and-a half.
People do get very stirred up by the fact that dogs get this treatment. They complain about the cost, for example. Boston is very clear on why these treatments are necessary and important.
“It’s such a personal decision to treat an animal for anything, that I don’t understand why people who don’t know the individual would question that bond and question why someone would want to spend money on that animal.
“For some reason when someone chooses to spend money on an animal, which is a lot more emotional than playing golf or vacationing in Hawaii, people just feel the need to give their opinion.”
In other words: none of your business.
Today Boston is mostly out of the woods, cancer-wise, and one of the first things she did was rescue a dog. His name is Rumble and he’s an Australian red heeler cross. Lucky dog indeed.
Veterinarian Sarah Boston, seen here relaxing with Rumble, wrote the book Lucky Dog about her experience as a cancer patient.
Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved My Life