Jacki Barnes Purdham knew something was wrong with her dog. Vipere wasn’t acting right. He also had that look that dog owners sadly know all too well. Immediately, Jacki took Vipere to the vet. Blood work was done and Jacki was told to wait for results. In the meantime, Vipere got worse, and the two returned to the vet. X-rays showed that Vipere might have a blockage in the abdominal area, because the lymph nodes there were very swollen. Emergency surgery was scheduled. Instead of a blockage, the vet discovered that Vipere had lymphoma.
Only two weeks prior, in October of 2009, Jacki had received her own devastating diagnosis. Jacki’s doctor had informed her that she had breast cancer. In the following months, her life became a nightmare of one doctor visit after another. She agonized over what her best option of care would be. She was leaning towards a double mastectomy, and refusing the chemo. “There was a lot on my plate and I only had a short time to make my final decision.”
Instead of making a quick decision, Jacki went into denial. The Belgian Malinois Nationals were coming up and she’d already enrolled Vipere. She decided to attend a Schutzhund (dog sport camp), where she and Vipere could receive extra training. According to the Absolute K9 website, “the Schutzhund focuses on three major areas of canine competence: tracking, obedience, and protection” with the intention of creating “the ultimate working dog”. It was the perfect place for Jacki to put cancer out of her mind.
The Nationals were not to be. Upon their return from training camp, Jacki and Vipere found themselves in a struggle together against their illness. Jacki could not continue to delay her decision about what treatment to pursue. As for Vipere, his lymphoma was everywhere.
I was completely devastated and, to be completely honest, I really can’t tell you how I really felt. You’d think that I lost my mind. Here I was, trying to deal with both my own decisions and now had to face dealing with Vipere’s cancer.
THE FIGHT BEGINS
At barely five weeks of age, when puppies are just starting to be weaned, Vipere’s mom had been sold by her owner out of frustration that she’d produced only one puppy. Jacki doted on Vipere, ensuring that he received all the best possible care. In turn, Vipere followed Jacki everywhere, and soon knew her every move. His personality, according to Jacki, was extremely social. “His expressions were endless and so full of life. He loved people.” In addition, Jacki says, Vipere was a dressage dog. “He pranced like a dressage horse and smiled at everyone.”
Because of her great love for this dog that she’d raised from a pup, helping Vipere in his battle against cancer came easy. Jacki decided to put him through the chemo and fight as hard as she could for his life. When it came to her own treatment, Jacki continued to drag her feet. She read all the books and articles she could find, and she talked to people who knew the cancer experience. Surgery was always a given, but Jacki remained unsure about chemo. The holistic route sounded more appealing. But in the end though, she opted for chemo. “My reasoning was if I was putting my dog through it, how dare I not do it to myself. It didn’t seem fair to him.”
In December of 2009, Jacki had the first of four surgeries. It was the big one: a double mastectomy with total reconstruction. It lasted eight hours and was followed by four days of recovery in the hospital. When she returned home, Jacki initially couldn’t take care of herself, and had to completely rely on her husband. “WOW! I would not have made it if it were not for him. He did round the clock care for me, meals, meds, dogs, family, friends, emotions, bandage and personal care. The list of what he did for me goes on and on. But he stood up the entire time, never complained to me, never turned his nose up, never looked away, and was always there for both myself and Vipere.”
After her recovery from this initial surgery, the chemo began—for both of them. “Chemo is something I don’t wish on anyone. Vipere and I would take turns. He would go for his chemo, and then I would go for mine, we would both suffer together. He was a much better patient than I ever was. He never complained, always looked at me with total trust, and did everything I asked.” To Jacki’s relief, Vipere’s cancer went almost immediately into remission. In fact, he soon started doing so well that Jacki put him back to light work. For a time, despite having to continue to fight against his cancer, she was able to maintain his health with different chemo treatments and new drugs.
Jacki and her husband had been living in Florida but were interested in an acreage in their home state of Nebraska. They had been away from home for nearly 13 years and wanted to move back. It was not long after they signed the paperwork for their new house that Jacki and Vipere’s health issues began. So the family delayed moving back home and stayed in Florida until all the medical issues were under better control. After undergoing an hysterectomy, Jacki saw an opening for an Animal Control Officer position only a few miles from their new house was. She applied for the position and, in the summer of 2010, the family made the move back to Nebraska.
Moving into the new house with Vipere was everything. Charlie and I both wanted him to experience the farm life and to run through the fields with ease. Vipere got the chance to do this and he really seemed to be enjoying himself. At the same time, I was no fool. I knew I was losing him. My vet was preparing me, but at the same time he was hoping for the best too.
VIPERE LOSES HIS BATTLE
After only two treatments with chemo, Vipere went into remission. Six months later, his cancer returned and this time the outcome was different. Jacki began to see Vipere fail a little every day. Jacki kept holding onto hope, but Vipere never improved. “Having to deal with this was one of the hardest things I ever faced.”
The night of July 12, 2010, stands out to Jacki as if it were yesterday. She went to bed at her normal time, but woke up at 3:30 that morning with a sick feeling in her stomach. Going downstairs in search of Vipere, she found him up against the back door having a seizure. Jacki picked him up and put him on her lap, as the seizure continued. “I called my vet. His wife answered the phone. Knowing that there was nothing she could do for me, she still gave me time and calmed me down. I will never forget her kindness that night. I held Vipere in my arms until he passed. I do not think I have ever cried for so long and so hard.”
Her own cancer went into remission until the summer of 2014. When visiting a doctor to get a broken collarbone checked out, Jacki received the news that the cancer had moved into her bones. She underwent radiation, monthly injections, and daily drugs to successfully put her cancer into remission again. To this day, Jacki still has to take monthly injections and daily drugs to stay in remission.
With the exception of her husband, Vipere was her rock while going through her initial cancer treatments. “He trusted my every move, and he gave me hope for myself. I truly believe he pulled me through some difficult decisions.” To Jacki, not only was Vipere the reason she decided to fight for her own life, but he walked her down that path.