The fact that Joshua, an 8-year-old golden retriever, is still alive is nothing short of a miracle. Even more dramatic, he personifies happiness every day after undergoing five cancer surgeries in 2½ years.
“He loves life,” says his owner, Al Baillif, of Escondido, Calif. “Even after all those surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, he’s at his best when it comes to revisiting the vet. It’s like he has no bad memories of the place, and he certainly loves the staff. He literally pulls me into the hospital to see his people friends.”
Bailiff, 58, a retired American Express executive, adopted Josh as a puppy and the dog enjoyed good health until 2004 when he was diagnosed via a cardiac ultrasound with an asymptomatic heart condition called aortic stenosis, which has never posed life-threatening tendencies.
But this tennis-ball lover was thrown a curve ball in January 2008. Josh was taken to his veterinarian, Dr. Karen Hackett, of VCA West Bernardo Hospital in Rancho Bernardo, Calif., for his annual examination and Bailiff mentioned the dog was somewhat lethargic. Hackett sensed something was wrong, and X-rays confirmed her concern, when a large mass was spotted in the dog’s abdomen.
Josh was referred to the San Diego Veterinary Specialty Hospital, where Dr. Sean Aiken removed the mass (soft-tissue sarcoma) the following day, and the dog recovered without complication. Within weeks, chemotherapy was initiated by Dr. Brenda Phillips, of Veterinary Specialty Hospital, which Josh tolerated well.
But this was only the beginning of this incredible golden’s Big C odyssey.
“Josh is a once-in-a-lifetime patient,” marvels Phillips. “But he can be thankful, too, that he has a very committed owner. They both have a resilient can-do spirit – a glass-half-full feel – all the time. “In other words: perfect patient, ideal owner.
Since the first surgery, four others have been performed to remove tumors (soft-tissue sarcomas) in his intestinal area, abdomen muscles, liver and a lung. Josh quickly recovered from each.
“Josh and I first met Dr. Phillips two weeks after the first surgery,” recalls Baillif. “She recommended chemotherapy because of the type of tumor removed. At first, Josh seemed to handle chemo pretty well. After two weeks, he developed severe diarrhea and began vomiting. I thought this was something he would need to live with while battling cancer, but Phillips’ reaction was very different. She said, ‘It’s unacceptable because Josh’s quality of life must also remain high.’ She altered his protocol and Josh’s reaction was positive.”
Phillips administered four additional chemotherapy/drug protocols since then and has carefully guided Baillif and Josh through a diagnostics trail of ultrasounds, blood/urine tests and X-rays. “She is not afraid to try new treatments, but carefully monitors them,” explains Baillif. “If Josh begins something new, she will call frequently until she is convinced he is handling it. She gets other involved, too, if their expertise is warranted.”
Since Josh’s last surgery for a solitary lung mass in late 2009, three lung nodules have appeared and receive steady monitoring. After his most recent chemotherapy, two are gone and the third is smaller.
On a 1-10 scale for quality of life today, Phillips gives Josh a 10. He’s a solid, muscular, robust animal that lives to get up each morning, go for a walk, enjoy playtime and be with his owner.
“This is an unusual case,” says Phillips. “Josh has undergone a blizzard of tumors with each modestly presenting itself. He is one of the most incredible healers I’ve ever seen. He bounces back in two to three days, where it might take another patient a week to 10 days.
“The other issue has been cost. Many owners might not have been able to afford this, but Al’s commitment to this dog and its quality of life are exemplary. He has this ‘let’s deal with it’ attitude that has allowed us to move forward with every challenge presented to him.”
With a refreshing candor and pinpoint observation, Baillif has charted the animal’s quality of life daily. For instance, he will tell you Josh has gone 887 days (through June 30) since first being diagnosed with cancer, with 96 percent of those being “normal” quality of life time. He’s had only 35 “less than normal” days, and that includes days of surgery or when he’s had a negative reaction to chemotherapy.
“His record-keeping is a huge assist for me,” adds Phillips. “No one knows his dog better than the owner, but Al has been incredible from that respect. Any small change and he’s on the phone or e-mailing me. “
Josh has always been a happy spirit, says his owner. “When he was a year old, he attended obedience training. After the program was completed, he was given an award. It wasn’t because he had mastered all of the commands, because he hadn’t. It was given to him because he was the most enthusiastic dog in his class. Josh demonstrates that same enthusiasm today while fighting cancer.”
Their daily regimen includes three walks, extending from 15 to 45 minutes, to beaches and parks. “Josh lets me know how he’s feeling,” explains Baillif. “On one of the trails there is a fork in the road. If he wants to move on, he will. If not, he’ll turn and tell me that’s enough, and we’ll head home.”
If he sees a neighbor he knows across the street, Josh pulls Baillif over to say hello. Conversely, if a neighbor hasn’t seen Josh for several days, he/she will come to the house or call to make certain he is OK. “Everyone loves him,” Baillif adds.
Josh loves vacations, too. The two have taken trips to Yosemite National Park; Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach, Calif.; Big Bear; Flagstaff, Ariz.; and the Grand Canyon. But Josh has let it be known, he prefers destinations with beaches.
As for other dogs, Josh will lie down when meeting smaller counterparts, so as to be eyeball to eyeball. “He has an uncanny ability to establish a comfort zone with them immediately,” says Baillif.
Bailey, a female Labradoodle, next door is so enamored with Josh that she leaves her stuffed animals at the fence for him to play with. Conversely, Romeo, a Great Dane with whom he conducts a speak fest on a 6-foot fence, is his lone adversary. Both are intact males.
Baillif prefers not to disclose the cost of Josh’s care. Suffice to say it has been thousands. “I made the decision to prioritize my spending on what I felt was important. For example, Josh is far more important to me than new cars.”
He is effusive with praise for Josh’s veterinary Dream Team. “Their expertise is incredible,” he says, “but their level of commitment to the animal’s welfare is exceptional. They have made themselves available 24/7 should the need arise.”
In early June, Baillif, Phillips and Josh traveled to the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Convention in Anaheim as one of the area’s featured “Animal Survivor “stories of the year.
But the final chapter of that story is hopefully in the distant future. For now, Baillif and the Dream Team are savoring the daily spirited romp of this gregarious golden’s “extra life,” as Baillif so happily characterizes it.