Printer Friendly

Orion’s Story: Cutting-Edge Science Bides Time for Family’s Canine Star

By Allison Tonini

Orion furrowed his brow in confusion as he watched his family leave the hospital without him. Although he had obeyed commands to sit, stay and lie down through endless tests, the nine-year-old Golden Retriever had no way of understanding his severe diagnosis.

Orion’s family was forced to make a huge decision: perform a high-risk surgery on Orion’s heart to remove a cancerous tumor or leave the tumor alone. Although the surgery was risky, the latter option meant certain death. As owner Jody Kujovich and her family tearfully left the hospital so Orion could be prepped for surgery, they hoped it would not be the last time they looked into his gentle eyes.

Just two days before the surgery, last march,  Kujovich had found Orion collapsed on the living room floor. He had no known health problems, so Kujovich rushed Orion to the family’s veterinarian, Dr. Robert Franklin. After listening to Orion’s chest and performing an echocardiogram, the veterinarian determined that it was highly likely that Orion needed surgery for a suspected cardiac tamponade, a condition in which fluid fills the sac that encloses the heart.

The life-threatening condition prompted the emergency procedure, during which Dr. Franklin drained a liter of fluid from Orion’s heart. A few tests and several dog biscuits later, Orion was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, a deadly cancer that forms in the lining of the blood vessels. Hemangiosarcoma is a devastating diagnosis for a dog. Cancerous cells are easily swept through the bloodstream and thus spread throughout the body. Hopeful, the Kujovich family contacted the College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University (OSU) and scheduled a full afternoon of appointments with specialists.

During their visit to the Louis Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital at OSU, a “Mayo Clinic for dogs,” as Kujovich calls it, the family met with Orion’s surgeon, Dr. Milan Milovancev, to discuss options. Surgery was necessary to prolong Orion’s life, but the family found out there is no cure for hemangiosarcoma. There was not much they could do for their loyal companion but to hope for a successful surgery.

Fortunately, a professor of veterinary oncology at OSU, Dr. Stuart Helfand, has been dedicated to finding a cure for canine hemangiosarcoma for most of his professional career. His tireless efforts have led to some revolutionary advancements in the fight against canine cancer. In a study funded by Morris Animal Foundation, Dr. Helfand explored how certain tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) fight canine hemangiosarcoma cells. Tyrosine kinases are involved in numerous pathways that regulate the growth and division of cells. In cancer cells, the tyrosine kinase circuitry can be inappropriately turned on, resulting in rapid cell growth and spread of the cancer. TKIs are anticancer drugs that specifically block uncontrolled activation of tyrosine kinase pathways. This form of selective treatment is thought to be superior to traditional chemotherapy treatments, which nondiscriminantly kill all rapidly dividing cells.

Dr. Helfand’s work, although experimental, has been beneficial to certain canine hemangiosarcoma cases, like Orion’s. Heart-wrenching statistics, like the finding that one in four dogs will die of cancer, keep Dr. Helfand and his team determined to find a cure.

“I feel a moral obligation to try to do a better job for each new hemangiosarcoma patient I see,” says Dr. Helfand. And with Orion, his approach was no different.

After a successful surgery that removed the cancerous tumor on Orion’s heart, the Kujovichs had Orion undergo a customized treatment with Dr. Helfand. In preparation to see which TKIs would be most effective, Dr. Helfand tested part of Orion’s tumor that was removed during surgery. Within a week, Dr. Helfand saw Orion’s cancerous cells “grow with unbounded fury.” Of the four TKIs that were tested, Orion’s cells were most responsive to the drug dasatinib. This posed a few problems for the Kujovichs. Dasatinib is a cancer-fighting drug that is frequently used by humans to battle cancer, but it has never been used in dogs, so there is no information on a safe dose for canines. In addition, dasatinib costs as much as $6,000 for a one-month supply.

With many obstacles facing Orion, the family was able to find a workable solution. After a heartwarming story about Orion was shared on a website for leukemia patients, several generous patients sent the Kujovichs donations of leftover dasatinib. The drugs were cut into experimental doggie doses by a pharmacist, and Orion’s dual treatment of dasatinib and chemotherapy began.

The statistics on dog cancer are grim. Unfortunately for Golden Retrievers, they are even more desperate. Sixty percent of Golden Retrievers die of cancer.

Dr. Helfand’s treatment undoubtedly prolonged Orion’s time with his family. But sadly, the Kujovich family said their final goodbye to their beloved dog on July 4. Although Orion eventually lost his fight against hemangiosarcoma, the legacy of his medical case lives on, and the extra time the Kujovich family had with Orion was “a gift beyond measure.”

With the help of Morris Animal Foundation, veterinarians like Dr. Helfand continue to work toward a cure for canine cancer. With the continued work of animal health researchers and generous support from donors, Morris Animal Foundation hopes that in the future no family will have to say goodbye too soon.

For more information about Dr. Helfand’s study, or studies like it, please visit

Posted by MAFon September 27, 2011.

Categories: Canine cancer , Dog health


Bookmark and Share

Post a Comment:

(max length 600 characters)
Enter this word:

Submitted by Kim Fontinell at: October 11, 2012
Our Brinkley died in my arms this past May due to the same cardiac tamponade. She also was nine-years old with no other health issues. She also had one liter of blood drained from her heart but no tumor could be found. She lived two more weeks before the diagnosis was confirmed for a second time. That extra time with her was a gift! Losing my sweet Brinkley girl was so painful as the onset of her illness was so sudden. Brinkley was a Therapy Dog who visited cancer patients during their chemo. Now, her memory lives on in the lives she's touched. We hold on to hope for the future.
Submitted by Helen M. Henderson at: April 17, 2012
I am deeply touch by Orion's story and the stories of all who have suffered the loss of a beloved companion. We lost our beloved Golden, Abbey, on January 16, 2012 at age 12 years. Numerous trips to the vet and diagnostic exams failed to diagnose a splenic hemangiosarcoma that ruptured and took her life within 48 hours. Thank you MAF for your outstanding efforts to cure canine cancers.
Submitted by Ernest Greenberg at: January 31, 2012
I lost my beloved Golden Retreiver, Honey, to cancer 3 years ago. My heart goes out to the Kujovichs. Golden's only purose on earth is to love and be loved. Keep up the good work.
Submitted by Michele Domsky at: January 17, 2012
I have lost 2 of my babies to splenic hemangiosarcoma. Today marks one month from losing my Chow-Aussie Mix. It does warm my heart to read that research etc is getting closer to prolonging the lives of hemangio victims. To me hemangiosarcoma is the most devastating cancer our dogs(furchildren) can get.
Submitted by Kathalyn Feuer at: October 3, 2011
Such a wonderful foundation. Perhaps, the people involved could have helped me save my wonderful, puppy Charlie who died in surgery from a tumor located by his heart.
Submitted by Laurel Hunt at: October 2, 2011
I lost a dog to hemangiosarcoma 18 years ago. I still think of the courage she displayed through surgery, chemo, and the last 3 months of her life, during which we had some special times. Thank you for supporting this important work. Laurel, celebrating the love of dogs at Bark Wag Love