Across the country, 2 Million Dogs has been hosting walks to benefit cancer research for pets and people.
CHICAGO — When his beloved Great Pyrenees dog Malcolm died from bone cancer in 2004, Luke Robinson was sad and angry.
Adding to his loss: Nobody could tell him why.
“I didn’t even know dogs could get cancer,” Robinson said.
Beginning in 2008, Robinson and two of his other dogs, Murphy and Hudson, walked from his home in Texas to Boston to raise awareness about cancer in pets and links to human cancers as well. With stops and starts along the way, and Robinson and the dogs camping or staying with host families, the journey lasted more than two years.
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“Somewhere on the cross-country walk I had this dream, this vision of taking the two dogs, walking 2,000 miles and making that into 2 million dogs,” he said.
And so his life’s mission was conceived. After the walk ended, the not-for-profit 2 Million Dogs was founded with the hope that eventually that number of canines and their owners will participate in walks to raise awareness and money to fund research to eradicate cancer from pets and people.
Humans share no direct genetic link with dogs, yet each dies from the same types of cancers in astronomical numbers, he said.
Sadly, Murphy was diagnosed with nasal cancer less than a month after arriving in Boston. He died a year and three days later.
Losing Murphy further strengthened his resolve.
“I think dogs are the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “I think that they hold the answer. They drink the same water we do, are exposed to the same air, environmental toxins. I can’t help to think since we don’t share a genetic link, there must be something in the environment.
“All the cancers we get, they are getting too,” he said. “And that is strange. . We share no evolutionary line with dogs. We don’t come from dogs and dogs don’t come from us.”
Robinson recently visited the Chicago area with Hudson and Indy, his newest “fuzzybutt,” on what he named the “Summer of Murphy Tour,” a cross-country journey in his van that he began in September.
Since 2010, through events called Puppy-Up walks, 2 Million Dogs (http://2milliondogs.org/) has raised $270,000, said Karyn Vasquez, a dog lover and member of the board of directors of the organization. About a third of the money goes to research, with the rest going toward education and awareness.
“For me, just letting people know that our companion animals really do get cancer is a huge step in the right direction,” said Vasquez, who lost her own dog, Chelios, to lymphoma on New Year’s Day 2010.
Last year the organization presented a $50,000 grant to Princeton University to fund the school’s study of canine mammary tumor development and progression.
“Mammary tumors are the most common tumors in intact female dogs,” she said. “In humans, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. Mammary tumors in dogs and breast cancer in women have many similarities, both in terms of risk factors and biology.”
Interest in the mission has grown.
In 2010 there were Puppy-Up walks in 12 cities across the United States. In 2011, there were walks in 27 cities, and this year there are about 32. So far, about 3,000 dogs and their owners have participated, said Ginger Morgan, executive director of 2 Million Dogs.
(In Washington state, there were Puppy-UP walks in Issaquah and Auburn earlier this year.)
“We are still looking for many dogs and their owners to help us in our fight against cancer,” Morgan said. “When we hit 2 million dogs, we will still continue walking. We’ll walk until we find a cure, until we can find out what is causing cancer and how we can prevent it.”
Heather Neal, of Aurora, Ill., also believes that cancers, as well as other ailments, in both humans and canines are caused by the environment we live in, the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.
She owns Cadence, an 8-year-old standard poodle, who last year received treatment for osteosarcoma, a malignant bone cancer. After undergoing chemotherapy, the amputation of her right back leg, a switch to a raw food diet and a daily cocktail of herbal supplements, Cadence is doing much better and today is cancer-free.
“She is vibrant, full of life, energetic,” Neal said. “Being on three legs has not stopped her at all. She is like a tornado.”
Neal believes humans have a spiritual connection with their dogs, and that dogs are the key to unlocking the mysteries of cancer.
“They are more than just pets to us; they are a family member,” she said. “Let’s do what we can to cure (cancer). It will be good for dogs and human beings.”
Dr. Tiffany Leach, a veterinary oncologist who works at Specialty Vets in Buffalo Grove, Ill., said there are cancers that behave the same in humans and dogs, and there are also treatments that work on both human and dog cancers.
For example, sarcomas behave the same in children as they do in dogs, and there are medicines that can be used to treat both, Leach said.
“Vet oncology is so important to us because we can take a lot of the human cancers and get information to use for dog cancers,” she said.
As a resident at Purdue University she worked on a study of bladder cancer. It was found that the same treatments used for human bladder cancer were effective when used to treat bladder cancer in dogs.
It’s also been proved that pediatric osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, displays the same behaviors in children and dogs. And doctors are able to use the same treatments as veterinarians in treating it.
Leach also believes environmental factors play a role in canine and human cancers. But she also believes certain breeds tend to be prone to specific cancers. For example, she said, a Bernese mountain dog is prone to histiocytic sarcoma, an aggressive cancer that begins in the muscle tissue.
Leach herself knows firsthand the pain of dealing with cancer on more than one level. Her grandfather suffered with prostate cancer, which first led her to studying oncology along with veterinary medicine.
In 2005, she was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, or kidney cancer. Though she declined to go into detail about her health, she has gone through treatments and at least two surgeries, and simply said, “I’m handling it. I’m still able to go to work and lead a pretty normal life.”
Then there are her two beloved Irish wolfhounds, which each have dealt with their own cancers. Gideon, 6, had a soft-tissue sarcoma. The dog has had surgeries and radiation and is in remission. Jiggs, 9, was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a type of a bone cartilage tumor. Jiggs underwent surgery two months ago and seems to be in remission, she said.
All of these situations have confirmed that the profession she has chosen as her life’s work is exactly where she should be. She knows the struggles of cancer. She knows the heartache of a pet having a life-threatening disease. So when sitting with a pet owner and telling them their pet has cancer, she can honestly say she knows how they feel.
“You can at least genuinely say, ‘I’ve been through this and I understand,’ and you can really mean it on a level I couldn’t have had,” she said. “I’ve been lucky in that respect. I’m an undying optimist. I like to take the positive out of all of this.”
Robinson, meanwhile, is off to another city. His message is for all people, those with and without pets, and those who have or have not been affected by cancer.
“We are facing nature’s perfect enemy,” Robinson said. “No man, woman, child or companion animal is spared its killing field.”