A second chance for Freeway

By Claire Hettinger

Even without most of his muzzle, Freeway, a 6-year-old pit-boxer-mastiff mix, is learning new ways to perform his old tricks.

With the help of the University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Freeway was able to overcome Fibrosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer, in November 2013, and he has been on the road to recovery since.

Tawnya Mosgrove, a resident of Bellflower, Ill., first noticed swelling on Freeway’s face after he came inside one day in late October. At first she just thought he was having an allergic reaction or was stung, but as time went on, the swelling worsened, and she decided to take him to his regular vet.

The vet took an X-ray, and it was pretty clear that Freeway had a mass on the tissue of his face.

When Mosgrove’s vet gave Freeway’s diagnosis, she decided to seek a second opinion from the University Veterinarian Teaching Hospital. She had never gone to the University before, she said, but it was always a good back-up plan in her mind.

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Mosgrove wanted the best options for the “gentle giant,” who spends most of his time attached to her in some way — even acting as a 93-pound lap dog.

After dropping Freeway off at the hospital, Mosgrove spent the afternoon concerned about Freeway as the vet team performed tests. When she arrived to pick him up, Alycen Lundberg, veterinary resident, had a smile on her face. She delivered the good news that Freeway’s cancer was confined to his face and had not spread throughout the rest of his body.

The next step was to decide on the best option for Freeway.  

Laura Selmic, small animal soft tissue surgeon at the hospital, with a fellowship in cancer surgery, said Freeway’s story is one of her favorite cases she has worked on.

“His owner Tawnya was very dedicated to him,” Selmic said, “and without treatment, Freeway would have been euthanized within a few weeks because the tumor was growing and causing him problems.”

The fibrosarcoma was eating into Freeway’s upper jaw, so there was just one surgery that would cure him of his cancer — but it involved removing the bone, Selmic said.

She said the surgeons reconstructed the muzzle of his face and created a new place for his nose so he could live a normal life.  

“He looks very different now, but he is still the same to his owners and still the same dog who really enjoys life,” Selmic said.

Cancer is more common in animals than humans, she said, adding that one in three dogs and one in four cats are diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.

Selmic said animals get types of cancer similar to cancer found in humans and are treated with similar methods, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

She said some animal cancers can be treated, but others can only be controlled to help improve the quality of the animal’s life.

The hospital treats many different types of animal cancer. Mark Mitchell, doctor and professor of zoology veterinary clinical medicine, said the exotic animal department sees very diverse animals affected by cancer, from fish with skin cancer to rats with mouth cancer.

“(Exotic animals) get all the same types of cancers that we see in dogs and cats and in humans,” Mitchell said.

He said cancer is very common in hedgehogs, ferrets and parakeets. Many chickens are susceptible to ovarian cancer, and with the big push for backyard farms, more and more people own chickens as pets, so the department has been seeing a lot of them, Mitchell said.

Pet cancer treatments are not as expensive as those for humans, but money can still limit how much veterinarians are able to treat pets’ diseases, he said.

Freeway’s surgery went flawlessly, and Freeway was able to return home the next day, but his recovery process was more difficult, Mosgrove said.

“It was very intensive — it was like bringing home a newborn,” Mosgrove said. “We didn’t sleep through the night.”  

Freeway had to be hand fed a wet gruel-like food for 14 days. The first three days following his surgery, he could not drink water out of a bowl, instead sucking on ice chips for water.

After six weeks, Freeway was ready to eat normally again.

“He actually finally was sick of (the gruel and) he would go to where we keep our dog food — our dry kibble — and he would look at the bag, look at the bowl, and then look at us,” she said.

With part of his nose and jaw missing, Mosgrove explained he eats, drinks and even plays differently. He liked to play fetch as well as tug-of-war with Gracie, one of the Mosgrove’s other dogs, but he has not yet figured out how to hold things in his mouth, so the Mosgroves have had to adapt and give him different toys.

Freeway has tried very hard to live his life as he used to. Mosgrove said just on Sunday, Freeway was so determined to pick up a toy and he worked at it until he finally figured it out. She said that is how he has reacted to all of his new challenges — he just wants to do things normally, and he keeps trying until he figures it out.

Mosgrove said the care she received from the hospital was amazing — the doctors, oncologists and his surgeon contacted her themselves. They walked her through every step of the process and made her feel like Freeway was in good hands.

The total treatment cost about $4,000, but Mosgrove said it was absolutely worth it to have Freeway well again.

Freeway’s cancer is gone, but he will continue to have checkups at the University Veterinary Teaching Hospital to ensure it does not return.

“He is young — only six years old — and we knew this (surgery) would give him the opportunity to live out his natural life,” Mosgrove said.

Claire can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Paige Lundberg was the oncology resident who saw Freeway at the University Veterinarian Teaching Hospital. Alycen is her first name. The Daily Illini regrets the error.