In my office, an aging golden retriever named jasper sits by my fax machine and waits for his latest ultrasound report. But I already know the results from a gentle wag of his tail and his rejuvenated appetite: the cancer is in remission. Unlike an oncologist, I don’t treat cancer. I focus instead on healing the patient’s failing immune system; Jasper’s gave rise to two large liver tumors. I worried that Jasper would succumb to one of his bleed-outs, or pass away after a severe reaction to a pain patch. But in each instance, a force rallied inside him, a spirit that science cannot yet quantify, and he beat the odds.
People generally assume that there is just one acceptable way to treat cancer — with conventional medicine, chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Many oncologists today advocate not using any holistic medicine while a pet is under their care. They believe that herbal supplements and antioxidants are not well characterized and can have unforeseen and negative interactions with chemotherapy drugs. They also typically state that special diets are not necessary. While their approach may successfully treat some types of cancer, the risks can often outweigh the benefits, especially in older, compromised animals.
Contrary to their opinions, I believe that dietary therapy is critical in the treatment of cancer. For years, I used the energetics of food to treat many forms of disease. If a disease caused heat or inflammation, I’d prescribe organic, homemade, finely ground diets including cold-water fish, pork and green leafy vegetables to cool the inflammation. I might also prescribe raw diets, which are cooling to the body. On the other hand, if a patient had a cold imbalance, his ears cool to the touch, I might prescribe cooked lamb or chicken, and warming vegetables like steamed rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and a tiny piece of fresh ginger. For either constitution, the introduction of live-plant antioxidants, vitamins and minerals would be beneficial, especially since these ingredients are often unavailable in commercial diets. If herbs and homemade diets could help Jasper, I thought, why not try them?
To my surprise and relief, Jasper survived the week on this regimen. Now, according to [his person], Wendy, he was having a few good days, time seemingly stolen back from his cancer, giving us a remote hope that we had suspended a downward spiral. I saw him for his second appointment on a sunny Monday afternoon. As he entered my office, rather than dragging his back toes, he walked in fairly normally, lifted his head occasionally and proceeded to sniff all four corners of the room. Rather than the deep brick red it had been the week before, his tongue color was now lavender pink, suggesting that his overall circulation and body temperature had improved.
Even with these signs of improvement, though, Jasper was still extremely underweight and very weak. His eyes remained dull, and the nominal amount of weight he had gained was a result of accumulating abdominal fluid produced by his leaking tumors.
Attempting to remove the fluid presented multiple problems and would only give him short-term relief. Again, we were left with few possible medical treatments, which reminded me of climbing a steep slope above the tree line and grabbing small twigs only to have them rip out of the ground; so few medical options, so few big trees left to hold on to.
“I hope he improves a little more this week,” Wendy said, her eyes puffy and tired. “We enrolled him in a nosework class when we learned he had cancer.”
She read my puzzled look. “After the diagnosis, we enrolled Jasper in a training program for nosework. We hoped it might help him stay mentally and physically stimulated.” The idea was to encourage and develop a dog’s natural scenting abilities and innate desire to hunt a target odor. In the process, the dogs have fun, building confidence and focus while burning mental and physical energy. It was not normally the place you’d find a dog with such a serious health condition.
But Jasper had spent his life as a natural seeker. The Millers often took Jasper with them on kayak trips. When they paddled to shore, the dog would bound from his bucket seat onto the beach. Immediately, he’d begin to dig, pawing so aggressively at the sand that it flew out behind him. After an hour, he would proudly lie in the middle of a 20-foot-long trench, happily gnawing on a stick to celebrate his masterpiece of excavation.
All of my medical training told me that Jasper should be inside a bubble, isolated from infectious disease and confined to the house to prevent the rupture of his tumors. Sick dogs, I had learned, should be quietly resting at home. But then, rules were meant to be broken. I remember reading Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human. She highlighted the importance of seeking: looking forward to an activity or object. When an animal’s attention is in a playful, seeking mode, he or she cannot simultaneously feel fear. Seeking is a necessary emotion that is often [missing] in many animals’ lives, especially after a grave diagnosis. Jasper’s nosework class would provide him with a new form of seeking, and instead of obsessing over his tumors, the Millers could let his new focus alleviate their own fear as well. I imagined Jasper barking and wagging his tail when he picked up the scent of birch oil in a little metal box hidden in the backyard. Jasper’s seeking behavior would be just as important to his overall health as any herbal therapy. When I was young, I unknowingly implemented this idea of seeking with my own dog, Julietta. Just after we adopted her from a litter of sick puppies at the shelter, she broke with bloody diarrhea. As we waited for the veterinarian, I held her in my lap, upside down in a blue blanket as though she were a doll.
I looked around the waiting room and noticed other people staring off into space: a slumping old man, a young woman in plaid jeans and a wool scarf, a couple holding a baby carrier on one side and a Beagle on the other. Their pets were quietly protesting from within carriers or crouching fearfully under chairs. Julietta and I looked at one another. She was weak, and her eyes gazed up at me for a clue to her destiny. Three black eyebrow whiskers followed my every move. Owing to my mother’s amazing ability to work despite almost any disturbance, she sat next to us reading and correcting students’ final exams, making big swirls with her red pen.
Thinking back to that veterinary clinic, I can still remember the exam room, the perky technicians and the doctor’s white lab coat and grim face as he reported Julietta’s poor prognosis. Parvovirus had struck her small, malformed, Basset-like body, and her only beautiful feature, the darkened liner around her brown eyes, now drooped as she hung her head on the steel exam table. “The smell,” the veterinarian said, “is unmistakable.” His eyes shifted to the clock when a cat howled in a back room.
My mother was speechless at the diagnosis, not because she loved the puppy even an eighth as much as I did, but because we were facing the death of an immediate family member for the first time, and were completely unprepared for it. The veterinarian suggested putting Julietta to sleep, no doubt because he correctly assumed that we could not afford hospitalization, and even if we could, her future looked bleak.
It was then that my 12-week-old puppy looked up at me pleadingly, giving a last tiny wag of her tail. My mother looked up from her pile of ungraded exams and silently nodded her tacit semi-approval. Even she noticed the puppy’s hint of hope. Right or wrong, this decision would be left to me, even though I may have been too young to make it. “Doctor,” I said with a small voice and a lump in my throat, “I’d like to try to save her at home.”
The veterinarian looked at my mother’s face for a more sensible decision, but when none came, he said, “Okay, young lady, you’ve got to work hard at this, and even then, she might not make it.”
Although 30 years later, Julietta’s veterinarian might have been sued for giving so many pills to a nine-yearold, back then, he thought nothing of handing me the plastic prescription bottles and showing me how to pinch the puppy’s skin to check for dehydration. With no fanfare, I tucked Julietta back under her towel, and carried her out to our dented blue car while my mother paid the bill. I didn’t know it then, but she had cashed in some family heirlooms and old coins to pay for this unforeseen expense.
Before and after school, I treated the small puppy. Sometimes I felt the hopelessness in it, while other times my determination took over. Every day I’d race home to find her waiting for me. I’d clean up the bloody diarrhea on the newspaper-lined kitchen floor that we walled off especially for her. Then I’d give her canned food and water through a large syringe as her pale tongue lapped it up. Afterward, I’d gently pry open her mouth to slide a huge blue pill as far down her throat as possible. After a few days of no improvement and minimal appetite, she hung her head as though the force of gravity weighed heavier on her than on anyone else. I asked my mother to let Julietta sleep with me, imagining that if I could hold her cold body close to me, I’d be able to warm her up. Naturally, with the putrid nature of Julietta’s stools, Mom resisted my request for a while, but I explained that there was a medical point to it.
Even with medication and round-the-clock nursing care, Julietta was still unwilling to eat on her own. I decided to try a new technique to stimulate her appetite, hiding small pieces of chicken in various places throughout my room. At first, she appeared uninterested, but gradually, her nose began twitching with the allure of appetizing scents lurking under the covers, behind the bed and in an old pair of dress shoes. Each day, I added larger pieces to our new seeking game. And over the next few days, Julietta’s appetite slowly returned. Within a month, she had rounded a corner, gradually returning to her normal, playful self.
I thought of Julietta’s remarkable recovery from parvovirus as I sat contemplating Jasper’s precarious health. “Wendy, maybe you’re onto something with this nosework,” I said. “But, if possible, try to keep Jasper from jumping around too much.” I worried that, among other concerns, any heavy exertion could cause the tumors to bleed. Wendy promised that all his initial training would be done on flat terrain. I continued, “Just in case, let’s add another Chinese patent herb, yunnan paiyao, to his herbal regime. It aids in blood clotting and might help keep his tumors from bleeding.”
As I inserted acupuncture needles into important liver-strengthening points, Wendy shared her trick of combining all Jasper’s powdered herbs and vitamins in a turkey baster and then briskly rubbing him down with a towel to get him excited about taking the gruel. “If I use the towel to fluff up and down his back, he gets so excited and happy, he barely realizes he’s taking any medicine at all!”
With the needles in place, I sat back and watched him relax into his acupuncture treatment. I asked myself what else I could do to strengthen his immune system. The answer to my question was an herb first introduced to me one summer in the Cascade Mountains by my herbal teacher, Madsu, a thin, gray-haired man reminiscent of an elf. With a wildcrafter’s permit — a guarantee that no plant would be over-harvested — Madsu had silently walked through the forest carrying a heavy burlap sack slung over his left shoulder. As I followed him, I had to look up occasionally to be sure I had not veered off his path, sucked accidentally into a patch of salal.
We climbed over huge logs covered with green sheets of elk moss and usnea lichen. Dirt built up and caked onto our knees as we knelt in front of some rattlesnake plantain, investigating its vibrant white center vein. The air was damp and cold. Droplets fell when I exhaled, and each breath made me feel more alive.
Madsu stopped abruptly to admire and bless his favorite plant, ocean spray, a large bush also known as ironwood because bows and arrows were made from its sturdy pith. I watched him place sacred red willow bark beside its base. To him, the bush represented the survival of his people, and indeed, it was a shrub worthy of notice. With a collection of small, energetic white flowers extending proudly into the sky, it resembled the spray of the sea crashing against a rocky shoreline. Each of its leaves was decorated with fine ridges in circular fan-like patterns, the leaf margin as wavy as water, reminding me of the thrill of a storm at sea.
Pieces of cedar crumbled into our hair as we ducked under a large rotten stump to find turkey-tail mushrooms, a shelved cluster of woody fantails, brown- and orange-tinted with a white underbelly. When one hikes with a mushroom expert and herbalist, every rotten log becomes a subject worthy of special treatment, full of hidden clues. Unlike plants, mushrooms are only present for a few days, sometimes only a few hours, so you have to leave your worries, your lists and your disagreements with others behind and focus on that bounty of mushrooms. Known as an immune modulator, turkey tail is one of many medicinal mushrooms that help the immune system recognize and kill cancer cells.
Madsu sought wild herbs by day and made medicine by night. We spent hours gathering reishi and turkey tail, chiseling at the mushrooms and then slinging the wood-like fungus into our burlap sacks. Our other sacks contained sheets of f luffy, light green usnea rolled on long sticks like cotton candy, and chunks of precious red root, an herb whose potency increases as its environment becomes more hostile. When we returned to our camp on a hillside outside Twisp, the moon gave us just enough light to layer some of our herbs onto thin racks and place them into a large dryer. Then we began crushing the mushrooms, tincturing them immediately and then pouring the liquid into large amber bottles to retain their medicinal potency.
Madsu learned how to gather medicine and process it from his mother, who traced her native roots to a Spokane woman named Teshwintichina. From her, he also learned how to make cakes from camas, bitterroot and black tree lichen. [The] camas bulb needed to be baked long enough to release the sweet inulin; an hour too early and it would still be bitter; an hour too late and it would turn to mush. The black lichen was packed into cakes when it was still a warm, sticky substance that could be molded easily. His family would cook the camas on warm summer nights when song and fire could pass the hours. They could smell when their camas had cooked long enough to convert the inulin. They could smell when [the] medicine was ready.
To me, many of Madsu’s herbal and food preparation practices seemed witch-like, entrenched in fire-born ritual. But I later discovered that some of the plants’ active ingredients, so important for immune modulation, disappeared quickly without immediate preparation. They were also more bioactive in the beginning of the autumn when the leaves of the alder tree start to turn gold. The ability to know when to harvest one plant based on the life cycle of another made sense when one lived in community with the plants, truly understanding their annual rhythms.
Jasper understood annual rhythms, too. In the summer, he hunted for moles in the fields. As fall approached, he sniffed out and ate blackberries. As Christmas approached, he dutifully protected the house, bravely fending off evil deliverytruck drivers.
Back at the clinic, I left Wendy and Jasper in the exam room while I reached up in my herbal pharmacy for a bottle of turkey tail and reishi made by Madsu that September night five years prior. I thought of how the field we’d chosen to make medicines smelled of sweet tarragon after a moist evening, and how Madsu blessed the medicine, completely present with his full attention on healing. The stars had beamed over our makeshift laboratory on a deeply nourishing night, and the nearly full moon floated overhead as we worked on counters of cut logs, swirling jars of herbal menstruum.
“Let’s start him on this mushroom blend,” I suggested, handing Wendy an amber bottle, just as herbalists have done for generations. As they got up to leave at the end of the appointment, I saw the tip of Jasper’s dry, cracked nose sniff at a liver treat I had cradled in my palm. At that point, I could see a trace of his inner life force, not through a brightness in his eyes, but through a twitch of his nose.
Photograph by Shelley L. Dennis