Shuffling the Pack

Another story from our fine local newspaper. Yes, it’s about cancer, and yes, it’s sad. Consider yourself forewarned.

Last month, there was a wonderful story called “Shuffling the Pack” about a woman, Tina Borja, and her dog Buck. Two years ago, Tina found a lump in her breast and became one of the the “one in eight” women in the United States to be diagnosed with the dreaded disease. She endured the all-too-familiar treatment of lumpectomy, mastectomy, chemo, and radiation to combat her cancer. During the misery that is cancer treatment, as Tina grew weaker, Buck took over as the pack’s alpha. According to Tina, it was no longer her job to take care of him; he decided it was his job to take care of her.

Reminds me of my sweet Maddy, the All Time Ever Best Dog in the History of the World. She and my sweet mama got sick about the same time, and both were going downhill fast: mom’s cancer was eating her alive, and  Maddy’s advanced age (98 in dog years) resulted in some nasty degenerative problems that no pet owner should have to witness. Long story short, my mom knew she wasn’t going to win her cancer battle and was heartbroken about the idea of me losing her and my beloved dog at the same time. The vet gave Maddy a few weeks to live, while Mom was given a few months. Darned if that dog didn’t defy the odds and live nearly 6 months past her predicted expiration date. She held on for several months after Mom died, then quietly let me know it was her time, too.

But back to Buck. And Tina.

After enduring treatment, Tina was pronounced cured of breast cancer. Not “in remission,” Tina says, but “cured.” Big difference. And one that this cancer survivor won’t feel comfortable assuming, ever. As I’ve written about here and here, “cured” isn’t something I consider. To me, “cured” connotes a permanent state, while recurrence is always on the horizon.

Tina looked at it differently, and didn’t think about recurrence. After being pronounced “cured,” she felt safe. She probably figured she’d endured so much hardship that she deserved to have a big payoff, i.e., a long, healthy life. Instead, she was hit with what every cancer patient dreads: recurrence. One day, out of the blue, she started  having trouble with fine-motor skills. Everyday stuff like typing and signing her name became iffy. After the all-too-familiar scans we cancer patients endure, Tina learned she had four tumors in her brain. Her breast cancer was not cured but in fact had spread.

She’s now enduring radiation on her brain, a last-ditch treatment that will most likely buy her some time, but it comes at a great cost. “With this cancer, you never know,” she says. “Will the cortex go first? Will I lose my speech? Or my motor control? Or my inhibitions? I could be running in the streets naked.”
Before any of that happens, Tina wants to make sure Buck has a new home.
So…it’s not enough for this woman to be dying of metastatic breast cancer, she also has to make plans for her dog to go to a new home? That is wrong. Just wrong.
I give Tina a lot of credit. Nowhere in the two articles I read about her is there a hint of “poor me” or “why me?” but instead, she’s focused on taking care of business. According to last week’s article, Tina “believes the right home is out there, that somewhere, someone is willing to give him the place in the world he deserves. A place with room to run, and someone to make him feel secure.”
Isn’t that what we all want, really? When we boil our life’s pursuits down to their essential elements, don’t we all want someone to give us the place in the world we deserve? A place with room to run, and someone to make us feel secure?
While my heart is breaking for Tina and my sense of righteous indignation is roiling over her situation — and that of millions of other cancer victims out there — I can’t help but be really moved by the love she has for her dog. I’m a dog lover and a cancer victim myself, so I’m ripe for the picking here, but even the most hard-hearted among us surely must be a teensy bit verklempt here.
For everyone concerned — animal lovers and “I’m fine without a furry creature in my life” alike — good news. Well, if you can consider anything good about Tina’s situation. After the initial article ran in the paper, more than 150 people emailed the columnist, Lisa Gray, and 100 of them expresed interest in adopting Buck.
Tina read every single email. I knew she was good people. She was reportedly overwhelmed, in a good way, and she replied to everyone who’d inquired about making Buck a part of their family. “Dear all, Your collective response evokes more adjectives than I can name: heartwarming, tender, encouraging, overwhelming.”
One email stood out among the horde, and curiously, it wasn’t even written by the person who might end up with the dog. Brett Felker recently had to put his dog down, and his stepmom, Kristy, emailed Tina. Brett’s dog, Boogie, was a blue-heeler mix, just like Buck. Boogie was a cattle dog on the Felker family ranch in Odessa, and Boogie lived a long, happy life with Brett on the ranch. At age 16, however, Boogie’s ranching days were over. The day that Kristy read about Tina’s plight was Brett’s first day back on the ranch without Boogie. Kristy took action, writing to Tina, “Perhaps we can see if Brett is ready for Buck. I think they both might need one another.”
This was a bold move by Kristy, and one that Brett could have interpreted as meddling. I know this, because I’ve been there. My beloved Maddy girl has been gone from this earth for 6 years, but I can still recall like it was yesterday how much it hurt to say good-bye, and how raw it felt to even consider getting another dog after my heart had been ripped out by her absence in my life. I remember saying I will NEVER get another dog, because the pain was too deep, the loss was too great. But in a matter of days, I knew that I would NEVER live my life without a dog as a part of it. I missed that sweet face in the window as my car pulled into the driveway. I missed that full-body wiggle when I walked through the door. I missed that comforting thump of the tail every time I entered the room. I missed the solid warmth and soothing presence of a furry body next to me as I reposed.
Brett wasn’t there yet when Kristy sent him the story of Buck. It was too soon, and he wasn’t ready. But Kristy soldiered on anyway, like a good bossypants, and emailed Tina. Then she took the bossiness one step further–which I love, by the way–and forwarded the emails between Tina and herself to Brett. Brett decided he was interested in Buck, because the blue-heeler side of Tina’s dog reminded him of his own beloved Boogie, but he wasn’t sure he was ready.
Tina replied in admirable dog-mama fashion, saying no pressure, but think about it because he seemed like a good match for Buck. I love that Tina wasn’t concerned with securing a home as much as she was with making a good match. That’s a good dog-mama for ya.
Tina and Brett are planning to meet soon, and Tina is sure it will be a good match between Brett and Buck. So sure that she’s already planning to take a picture of Brett leading Buck away. She says “it’ll be a brand new pack, each starting over, but each knowing what it means to be loved.” I sure hope Buck keeps this photo in his heart, forever:

5 Comments on “Shuffling the Pack”

  1. gozzygirl says:

    Wow, I read that with tears welling up, and I’m not even a dog lover. Maybe it reminds me of losing our cat, just before the vacation that was just before my cancer diagnosis.

    I hope that I will outlive our new cat, who has brought me so much joy through my “journey”.

  2. Eddie says:

    Thanks for making me want to cry!! Maddy is the reason I have dogs. In fact, there’s a picture of her and Snoopy staring at me now. Tina leaves me feeling shallow and selfish. I don’t know that I could keep going facing what she’s facing.

  3. billgncs says:

    We ( my family ) do Pit Bull rescue ( we foster the dogs and work with them until they get adopted ), and dogs can love truly. Nevertheless, dogs always break your heart, because they don’t live long enough. Maybe that’s us ( cancer patients ) too.

    But we fight, and persevere and it takes us where it may. Thanks for sharing this story, and you views on it.

    Good health.

  4. David Benbow says:

    I love my wife and I love my kids, but NO ONE can match the love of a dog. Tina is an amazing and brave person and she wants to make sure that Buck goes to a good home. Here’s hoping that Tina and Buck both end up in beautiful places.

  5. What a story! You are right: we are never “cured” of cancer. This story of Tina proves it. I just love the unconditional love of dogs. I wish the best for both of them. XX


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