The following is the story of Cashew, as told by his humom.....
I’ve been trying to put into words Cashew’s story. It’s taken me weeks to put into words what’s been floating around my head; like a plastic bag darting around in the street of my mind. No matter how I start, the ending is still the same. The problem is where does his story truly start?
Cashew was adopted when his blind eyes caught mine. I felt his stare in my soul, but at the time I didn’t know what it meant. He was a senior Lhasa Apso, or so they thought. He was found roaming a highway with knots in his fur and his skin both raw and covered in plaque. Although he couldn’t see, he felt the presence of those around him and they in turn felt his. His rescuers adored him and it didn’t take long to join his fan club.
This handsome man became a beacon of strength and a source of love. On my darkest days he pawed at my legs to cuddle and share his warmth. Cashew had a lot of health issues and his vets got to know him in a way that made them smile. He was always visiting for an issue to do with his skin, his eyes and any other health issue an aging dog may encounter. He was a fighter that didn’t seem to care about his medical bath routine or constant trips for check ups. I became used to it too. As a duo, we knew it was just another bump in the road of life. That is, until April 29, 2019.
Dates never had much meaning unless they were a celebration. I remember every day that came after and everything became a celebration. Cancer was the same. It was a blanket diagnosis until you’re told that your hero has it. You never realize how many forms there are, locations it could be and ways it could be treated. However, then most important word of all is terminal.
Vets don’t tell you that right away. They are positive and in return, you are. I even denied that cancer was an option until they performed a biopsy on Cashew’s lump on his chin. It wasn’t until our vet called and confirmed it that I realized the scary reality of this disease. I remember everything about that moment. I remember everything about every moment of our battle. I couldn’t forget if I tried. He said the lump was “nasty and aggressive” and gave it a name. I didn’t hear it. Maybe I wasn’t listening to it. I just sat in the chair in the corner of the room and held back tears. This call was important and I needed to focus. I couldn’t. I searched for Cashew and on cue, he walked over to me and pawed my leg. I lifted him onto my lap and stared at him. I mouthed that we would fight this. He knew we would.
As I write this, the same tears that I cried on day one, join a familiar spot on my cheeks. I’m trying not to rush his story, but am frantic not to leave anything out. He deserved the world and all I want to do now is honor him by sharing his legacy.
The weeks that followed were shadowed by vet and oncologist visits. He had basosquamous carcinoma. It’s so rare and aggressive that there’s only a few lines on it in medical journals. Cashew needed surgery. Another surgery and all of the tests that need to be done before it. Each test gave me a sigh of relief as they checked to see if his cancer spread. I couldn’t focus on anything else, except for where we would get the money. His insurance denied the claim because they said the sore on his chin was pre-existing. His lack of sight led to a few cuts that were always treated, but they didn’t care. The decisions that followed weren’t made on finances, but I often wonder if I had the money if we could’ve been more aggressive with the treatments. One oncologist told us to remove his jaw and another said it wasn’t necessary. That choice haunts me.
After Cashew’s second surgery things seemed perfect. He was recovering and healthy. He was 33 lbs and dropped to 30 because we were focused on eating well and exercise. I added in immunity booster vegetables and Turkey Tail powder. I googled everything about canine cancer and joined Dogs With Cancer support groups. I became an authority on all things involving canine cancer. I was offering advice because we were the lucky ones. We beat cancer. Not only cancer, but one that had such a low survival rate that most dogs don’t make it past a year. Our vigilance in vet visits made us the champions of this otherwise horrible diagnosis.
We were back at the vet on Oct 22 for his annual visit for his brother, Tobias. While we were there I asked our vet to check Cashew’s gums because on side seemed swollen. She lowered his lip and I knew before she said anything that the cancer was back. I dropped to my knees. I don’t know if I made a sound because I couldn’t hear anything. My eyes focused on one tile. I couldn’t break my stare as I fought back tears. I felt her hand on my shoulder and I covered my eyes in response. My hands were saturated by the time I lifted my head. Now what?
I took a moment before we headed back to the car. He was so blissfully unaware of what I knew, of what he was about to endure. My heart felt like it was shrinking and exploding with each breath. I tried so hard to be strong for him, but he was the strength I needed. He crawled onto my lap. I let him stay there the whole ride home.
We found ourselves back in the oncologist’s office again. I sent thank you cookies that were in the lobby still fresh. I honestly don’t know what I was most scared of as we walked into the room at the end of the hall. They took him away for more x-rays. I just kept thinking about how I couldn’t afford to do it all again. I was unsure if I could keep up with the positivity. I had so many doubts and concerns. I told her all of them. I cried asking why I didn’t remove his jaw. She held him as I expressed myself through short words and long breaks while I gasped for air. I was sobbing, crying, melting down into a puddle of my own fears.
“You did the best you could with the information you knew”
Those words became my advice to everyone going through that moment. It was a brief rainbow after a storm. However, I quickly felt heavy. I was Cashew’s mommy and was failing him. She told me to focus on his quality of life. It was terminal. I failed him. She praised me for everything I had done to help him. I still felt like I wasn’t worthy of her kindness. I couldn’t stop crying until she told me I did everything she would’ve done. She told me he didn’t have much time and not to spend it fighting it. He most likely wouldn’t make it til Christmas. He only had 65 days. I shed one last tear and it was the last time I cried in front of him. I would not fail him.
That day Cashew Conquers Cancer was created. At least once a week we were going on a trip to celebrate life. We went to five different states and tons of locations. He became one with nature on our hikes and enjoyed hearing the waves crash against the sand at the beach. He liked the bustle of the city and soaring above in the mountains. We took photos at each location that will forever be etched in my heart.
We lived each day like it was his last, but it never was. We went from worrying about his last day to surpassing it. 65 days became 70, then 80, and then we counted in months. Our greatest adventure was sponsored by Live Like Roo, a foundation that helps families battle canine cancer. They sent us to Boston for the night and set us up with a photographer. I still look at those photos to replay that trip.
As the months continued to pass, we celebrated each holiday one more time. They were more special than any of the others before. Cashew seemed to be immortal. He was thriving because of all of the walks that I neglected to do prior due to his blindness. There were tough days when his tumor would bleed or he didn’t have an appetite, but they became part of our new normal. Cashew took chemo meds and had check ups. He began eating baby food because of the tumor. He lost weight and wore a diaper, but he still smiled and loved our trips. He sat on my lap on the drive for each of them. At the time it was hard to see how much he changed. Looking at pictures I wondered how I could be so blind. I blame it on his strength and how much he gave me.
Each morning he continued to paw at my leg to sit on my lap during coffee time. I got up an extra 30 minutes each day so that we had that time. I was always scared of going to work and something happening if I rushed out the door. However, I felt him getting weaker. He still did everything he had been doing, but it was just a feeling.
We went to the beach. It was the same one we went to as our first adventure nearly 11 months earlier. His birthday was the following week and so we took a longer trip before my work schedule got hectic. He was quiet and looked out at the waves. Tobias sat next to him. He never did that. The two shared in a unified moment as the sun set on the day. The next day we went for a bike ride as Cashew sat in the front basket. He loved the wind through his now unkempt hair. We then went to one of our favorite hiking spots and were blessed with another sunset at the top. The mountain overlooked the river and our hearts smiled at the beauty of what we saw.
The next day was not unlike any of the others. Cashew ate a little less, but nothing noticeable. I put Cashew down for a nap as I left for work. I called out if him or his brother wanted snackies, and they both came over for a treat. I lifted the blanket on the couch and put Cashew back to rest.
I felt off at work. I’m a soccer coach and had two sessions at the field. When I left it was 7 pm. I got into my car and began the 45 minute journey home. My eyes started to tear. I didn’t know why. I kept drying them only to be replaced with more. My heart fell into my stomach. I clenched the wheel and gave up on fighting the tears. It was only a few minutes. Maybe more. Maybe less. I really don’t know.
I got home and for the first time ever Cashew didn’t greet me at the door. Neither did Tobias. I ran to the couch when Tobias stood guard. Cashew didn’t move. My heart fell back into my stomach. I lifted him and could feel a faint heartbeat. I pressed him against my chest and noticed he was gone, but not completely. We didn’t go to the vet. I couldn’t lose him on the drive. I know he waited for me. I held him for hours until I knew he moved on ahead.
From the time Cashew was adopted until the time his battle ended, it had been a week shy of four years. A year and a half of it he spend being a cancer warrior. I always wish for more time, but realize he gave me a lifetime of love, memories and lessons that made me a better person. He turned 65 days into 11 month because he knew I needed the extra time to cope.
I learned not to mourn someone before they are gone. I cried when he wasn’t around, because even the strongest person needs to be vulnerable. He taught me how to love someone more than myself and prioritize that love. He’s left me with a life I’m proud of because I’m busy honoring his.
The day after he left he began leaving signs that he was fine, that I’d be fine and that he knew I did my best. He left tuffs of fur in locations where it was impossible. Tobias and I heard his clumsy paws on the stairs. I made a memorial with flowers as bright as his personality. I donated to his shelter, cancer foundation and continued to offer advice based on our experience. There were moments when I’d cry thinking of him, but then immediately smile or laugh because of a memory. I looked at the photos of our trips and all that we accomplished in such a short time.
His tenth birthday was the following week. We celebrated him as if he were there for the cake. However, something strange happened. I received an email that a dog named Cashew needed a home. He had been returned twice and was only 11 months old. He was born when Cashew’s cancer returned. I wasn’t ready, but I filled out an application because I knew it was Cashew telling me I needed to rescue another dog in his name. Literally.
Cashew 2 came for his home visit and immediately went to Cashew’s memorial. He laid next to it as if he had done it every day. As his foster mom and I walked over, we noticed a praying mantis on the wings of Cashew’s canine statue. It was him peeking in to see if I had been following his not so subtle hints. Cashew 2 was adopted and now goes by the name Chestnut.
They say grief is love with nowhere to go. I believe this to be true. As much as I miss my little handsome pants, I feel motivated to honor him even more. I continue to donate and offer advice, but it didn’t feel like enough. I began fostering other dogs. That didn’t last long when I decided to keep Theo, a former Chinese meat trade survivor. Hoping to still help, I dubbed myself a phodographer and took photos of dogs in their foster homes. In Cashew’s name we helped 23 dogs find a home. Along with my three fur assistants, Cashew’s name stays fresh in everyone’s mind. His legacy helps motive others who battle; knowing it’s not about the ending, but the journey. His story will continue to be told in hopes of helping other dog families. You are now one more person who knows the story of Cashew and how it will never truly end.