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June 15, 2017 – Finding out your dog has cancer is a devastating experience for many pet owners. If you also happen to be a veterinarian, emotions collide as you find yourself in the position of both owner and doctor, like Dr. Joe Schmidt and his wife, Sue. But the Schmidts also found a small silver lining – the chance to participate in a clinical trial that could improve cancer treatment for not only dogs, but their humans, too.

Sue and Joe own an outgoing (is there any other kind?) golden retriever named Riley. Riley lives in Colorado, and, like all good Coloradans, loves the outdoors. Riley was a constant hiking companion for Joe and Sue and, at 7 ½ years old, the picture of health in December 2015 when Joe and Sue left town to visit relatives.

Riley was staying with Joe and Sue’s son, Mike, when Riley started limping after a romp in the park. Assuming that Riley had tweaked something while playing, Joe instructed Mike to start pain medication. When Joe and Sue returned from vacation and Riley was still gimpy, the pair became more concerned.

“Joe was relieved that he couldn’t feel any swelling in the affected leg,” said Sue, “But he took him to get an X-ray as soon as we got home.”

Unfortunately, the X-ray was suggestive of osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.

“Our first reaction was disbelief and tears,” said Sue. “That lasted about five minutes. We quickly moved into the ‘let’s get this figured out’ stage.”

Osteosarcoma is the most common primary bone cancer of dogs. Highly aggressive, most tumors already have metastasized by the time of diagnosis. Although all dogs can develop osteosarcoma, the cancer more frequently affects large and giant breed dogs. Amputation, radiation and chemotherapy are used to treat the tumor and provide relief from pain. Unfortunately, the average survival time even with treatment is only one year, and most dogs succumb to the disease within two years.

The Schmidts decided to contact the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University, both to confirm the diagnosis and discuss options. It was during this initial visit that Sue and Joe learned about a clinical trial that seemed like a good fit for Riley. The trial was for a new drug therapy designed to slow metastatic disease, the reason why osteosarcoma is so deadly. The Schmidts felt strongly that helping canine osteosarcoma research was a “silver lining to a very dark cloud.”

“Joe and I both understood the commitment we were making when we agreed to participate in the study,” said Sue. “The biggest consideration for us was time and travel distance from Pagosa Springs to Fort Collins. We quickly decided that we’d make it work. Our son, Mike, has given up his bed more times than we can count, but we feed him so he calls it even!”

The Schmidts also were pleased to discover that the study Riley is participating in has the possibility to translate to the treatment of people with cancer – an extra bonus said Sue.

“Unfathomable numbers of people are fighting cancer for themselves and loved ones,” said Sue. “Sometimes those loved ones happen to have paws and tails. Joe and I simply are participants in the fight and like everyone else we’re aiming for a win.”

Following surgery to amputate his affected leg, and his chemotherapy, Riley did well. Like most dogs, Riley adapted very quickly to his amputation and, said Sue, he was happy, playful and enjoying life. Unfortunately, Riley lost his battle with cancer earlier this year.

“Looking back, Joe and I agree that we wouldn’t do anything different, which feels really good,” said Sue. “We are acutely aware that we were given extra time with Riley and had a heightened appreciation of that time”

Sue noted that even a cancer diagnosis can have unexpected “bright spots.”

 “Joe has a deeper understanding of what an osteosarcoma diagnosis means for a patient’s family,” said Sue. “He can advise from a personal perspective as well as a medical one. It can be very impactful to hear someone say, ‘I understand because I’ve been there.’”

Morris Animal Foundation has a long history of supporting canine cancer research. The Foundation’s Osteosarcoma Initiative is funding several active studies all focused on various aspects of osteosarcoma, from personalized medicine to innovative chemotherapeutic agents.