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This Month's Real Story: Cheyenne

Cheyenne and her mom Julie

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cheyenne came to Dr. Becker in fall 2001 with a diagnosis of terminal mast cell cancer and just 4 weeks to 4 months to live. Cheyenne’s owner had opted not to put her dog through the mostly ineffective traditional chemo-and-radiation protocol.
  • Cheyenne was already eating a homemade raw diet, so Dr. Becker added several supplements to support her body as it battled a very unique type of tumor. And she managed Cheyenne as a whole patient, not just a set of cancer symptoms, which involved measuring and supporting her thyroid and kidney function, among other things.
  • Cheyenne outlived her original prognosis and in the ensuing years, Dr. Becker continued to care for her, titering to demonstrate immunity against core canine diseases, and avoiding all vaccines.
  • In 2004, a new mast cell tumor appeared which Cheyenne’s mom and Dr. Becker agreed not to surgically remove. Instead, they used it as a marker of the health of the dog’s immune system.
  • Today, Cheyenne is 16 years young, in good health, and sassy as ever!

By Dr. Becker

The lovely canine lady in the picture is Cheyenne, a sassy 16 year-old chow and cocker spaniel mix.

I met Cheyenne in early September 2001, not long after she was given 4 weeks to 4 months to live by the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine. Cheyenne had been diagnosed with metastatic mast cell tumors that were both aggressive and incurable (page 1).

When I first examined Cheyenne she already had a new mast cell growth at the scar where a tumor had just been removed above her upper left canine tooth. Her mom, Julie, wisely declined further traditional treatment, since chemo and radiation are, for the most part, ineffective for patients with Cheyenne's type of cancer.1

Mast Cell Tumors

Mast cell tumors are very unique. They occur in both cats and dogs, and more often than not, they are malignant.

Mast cells are found in all tissues of the body, but they are in especially high numbers in the skin, respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal tract. They contain histamine and heparin, and play a role in allergic responses, non-allergic skin disease, wound healing and tissue remodeling. They can also increase stomach acid production.

When mast cells replicate in higher than normal numbers, a mast cell tumor can form. Pets with mast cell tumors can have complications like stomach problems from the overproduction of histamine, or excessive bleeding from the release of heparin.

Because mast cell tumors over-secrete histamine, dogs with this type of cancer must remain on histamine blockers – preferably natural ones – for the rest of their lives to reduce complications from mast cell degranulation, which include mouth and GI ulcers, vomiting and other symptoms.

Cheyenne's Protocol

Cheyenne was already eating a homemade raw diet, so we focused on supplementation. We added:

  • Antioxidants including natural vitamin E
  • Large doses of vitamin C which has anti-histamine activity helpful in controlling mast cell tumors
  • More dark green, leafy vegetables as additional sources of beta-carotene and flavonoids
  • 1000 mgs of omega-3 essential fatty acids in the form of fish oil

We discontinued the Pepcid prescribed by the veterinary teaching hospital and instead gave Cheyenne homeopathic Apis Mel (which I call "nature's Benadryl") and arabinogalactans.2

Keeping an Eye on Cheyenne's Overall Health

Julie and I agreed that our primary goal was to keep Cheyenne feeling well, despite her terminal diagnosis.

At her recheck on October 1, 2001, her oral tumor had shrunk in size and though she felt good overall, her skin had become flakey and very itchy. I checked Cheyenne's thyroid levels, which turned out to be extremely low (page 2).

Because thyroid health plays a big role in immune system health and balance, I immediately put Cheyenne on a prescription thyroid medication called Soloxine.3 Under normal circumstances I try very hard to jump start a sluggish thyroid naturally before resorting to medication. But Cheyenne's situation was critical. I didn't have the luxury of time to try to naturally improve her thyroid function, a process than can take 3 to 6 months. According to the oncologists, Cheyenne didn't have 3 to 6 months.

So I opted instead to give her instant thyroid support with medication, hoping it would help her immune system recover.

In December 2001 we rechecked Cheyenne's thyroid levels, and thankfully, they were back within normal ranges (page 3). We also rechecked her BUN, a biochemical marker of kidney health, with our in-house blood analyzer. Cheyenne's BUN was elevated when she was checked at the University of Illinois, and it's important to manage the health of the whole patient rather than focusing on a single set of symptoms. Thankfully, her levels were showing improvement.

Avoiding All Vaccines

Cheyenne's oral tumor continued to shrink and much to our delight, she made it to her 6th birthday!

In May 2002, Cheyenne was due (per the law) for a rabies vaccine. According to Illinois State Law, all healthy dogs must be vaccinated for rabies. Because Cheyenne was not healthy, I titered her instead (page 4), and she was still protected against the rabies virus, so I wrote a vaccine exemption.

Sadly, only pets like Cheyenne with life threatening health issues can receive a rabies vaccine exemption. Fortunately, Dr. Ron Schultz is in year 5 of a 7 year study to successfully demonstrate a minimum duration of immunity for rabies at 7 years vs. the current legal requirements for either 1-year or 3-year vaccines. You can learn more about the study at the Rabies Challenge Fund. The goal of this effort is to be able to recommend that after an animal is vaccinated at from 12 to 24 weeks of age for rabies, it doesn't require a re-vaccination every 3 years.

Vaccinating a mast cell tumor survivor is quite possibly the worst choice a vet or pet owner could ever make for that animal.

We titered Cheyenne again in 2003 for protection against parvo, distemper and rabies, and she was still immunized against all three viruses (pages 5 and 6).

Three Years Later a New Mast Cell Tumor Appears

In October 2004, Cheyenne developed a soft, subcutaneous (under the skin), fluctuant (movable and able to be compressed) mass just above her left elbow. A fine needle aspirate of the mass revealed another mast cell tumor (page 7).

Cheyenne's mom Julie and I discussed the pros and cons of having the mass surgically excised. Julie elected to leave it alone, and we agreed we would use this new mass as a sort of barometer of Cheyenne's overall immune system response to the protocol we had her on, as well as a test of her histamine response.

When Cheyenne received a bite from a spider, or when her seasonal allergies flared up indicating increased histamine production in her body, the mass became much bigger. When her body was controlling histamine production well, the mass shrunk.

At this point, I decided to add a quercetin-bromelain-proteolytic enzyme supplement4 to Cheyenne's protocol to reduce inflammation and histamine production.

Cheyenne Today

Cheyenne stayed on the same protocol through 2008. In September of that year, she had a complete tear to her right ACL, so I referred her to an orthopedic surgeon who repaired the injury. Once again, Cheyenne was patched up and good to go.

This past spring, Julie brought Cheyenne in for her spring wellness visit. Cheyenne is now 16 years old, and Julie chuckled, "Remember when U. of I. told us she had 4 months to live?" I certainly remembered, yet there we were, completing a true wellness (not illness) exam on a geriatric dog who feels great and has a wonderful quality of life.

The mast cell tumor above her left elbow remains about the same size, never getting much bigger, and never going entirely away.

Cheyenne still chases squirrels. She still loves being outside and going for walks. She still sasses her mom and draws joy from every minute of every day... all while living with "terminal" cancer.

Cheyenne is a true success story, still going strong a decade past her prognosis.