The death of a family pet is a painful experience, but when John and Karen Holland lost their Saint Bernard named Bailey, the spirited 6-year-old pooch left behind a legacy of giving.
Bailey was euthanised on Jan. 31 after a medical odyssey that took her from Mount Vernon to Centerburg and from Columbus to Columbia, Mo. She was part of a cutting-edge veterinary research project that studies bone cancer in dogs in hopes of finding a cure for children and young adults afflicted with the same disease. And although she survived only five months after being diagnosed around Labor Day with osteocarcinoma (OSA), Bailey played her part in the process with spirit and dignity.
“There’s no cure for it now,” John said, “but there are treatments that can extend a dog’s life and may some day lead to a cure for humans. When Bailey was diagnosed we could have let her go, but we just couldn’t do it.”
Bailey’s original diagnosis was made by Dr. Fred Altizer in Centerburg after she came up lame with swelling in her left foreleg. Dr. Amy Rose of Express Vet in Columbus provided her initial treatment. And before long, the Hollands learned about a Houston businessman named Stan Stearns and the Gabriel Foundation.
Stearns created the Gabriel Foundation in memory of his own Saint Bernard that died of OSA several years ago. The 501(c)(3) foundation supports research into canine bone cancer and was Bailey’s guardian angel during her battle with the disease.
The standard treatment for bone cancer in a dog’s leg is amputation followed by chemotherapy. Dogs usually do well after amputation, but 90 percent of OSA victims survive 18 months or less, often dying because the cancer spreads to their lungs.
Stearns told the Hollands about an experimental form of treatment in which tiny holes are drilled into the tumor and bone, after which radiation is injected into the holes. Even with the treatment, the long-term prognosis is grim. But the Hollands decided that trying to extend Bailey’s life was worth it.
Bailey was checked out by Dr. Cheryl London of the Ohio State University Department of Veterinary Sciences to confirm that she was a candidate for the treatment. The next step was to drive her to the University of Missouri in October for 10 days of treatment under the care of Dr. Kim Selting. Fifty-seven holes were drilled and radiated, and after recuperating from the procedure Bailey was brought home.
Canine OSA typically develops in hard bone tissue and also affects surrounding muscles and tissues. It is the most common form of cancer among dogs and is particularly prevalent in large breeds and greyhounds. About 10,000 dogs are diagnosed each year with the disease.
Among humans there are fewer than 1,000 cases a year, mainly among children over 5, adolescents and young adults. It is an aggressive cancer, prone to metastasis, and tragically it kills nearly a third of its victims.
“The thought that Bailey might help to find a cure meant a lot to us,” Holland said. “Her treatments cost about $10,000, of which we paid about $3,000. The rest was covered by the Gabriel Foundation. Some people think it’s crazy to spend that much on a dog, but we just had to do it. I’ve never known a sweeter dog than Bailey.”
Bailey tolerated the treatments in Missouri well, but not long after it was learned that the cancer had spread to her lungs. Although she experienced major weight loss she remained active and comfortable until January, when she chewed through her dressings and opened a serious wound.
“It was a dangerous situation, because the vets told us there was a possibility of spreading MRSA,” Holland said. “That’s when we knew it was time. Putting her down was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I talked to Stan Stearns on the day she died and we cried together on the phone.”
Although there was no miracle ending for Gabriel or Bailey, numerous universities and hospitals around the country continue to focus OSA research on dogs because the canine and human forms of the disease are so similar. Literature from Colorado State University calls OSA in dogs and humans “strikingly similar,” and Ohio State says that dogs provide “an excellent model for comparison.”
Ohio State has an ongoing research project focused on greyhounds. Colorado State University, among others, resects cancerous bone and replaces it with a titanium insert or bone from a cadaver. Oregon State University, the University of Texas and Texas A&M are also focal points for related research.
OSA remains a deadly human disease, but survival rates have improved dramatically from about 15 percent in the 1960s to 65 percent overall and 75 percent when the disease is localized.