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Well, pick me up with golden hands/ oh I may see you, oh I may tell you run/ send me on my way, send me on my way...I'm on my way

A Song for Will Shakespeare: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRbB4qt9vJQ&feature=related

The vets always say “you’ll know when it’s time,” and sure enough, I know: it’s time.  Will Shakespeare, my dearest sweet Pooh-bear, my very first boy rat, it’s exactly time to send you on your way.

Now that we’re up against it, I’m tallying in my heart the emotional costs of keeping short-lived pets. Two and a half years just isn’t enough time with these smart, loving, awesome little creatures. They nuzzle their way up under your chin and into your heart. I’m not helped by the fact that Will and Henslowe, his litter mate, exhibit the very best temperaments I’ve ever encountered in rats, or any pets. They are just two big old devoted sweeties, no other way to describe them, and utterly irreplaceable.

At present, the aforementioned sweeties are snarfing and snuffing around on the bed as I type, searching out the last wee crumbs from a cinnamon roll mishap earlier in the day. In a bit, they’ll poop out and curl up for a mid-morning nap in the sun, as old gentlemen are want to do. Fat, ploppy old Henslowe, who has more energy than Will does at this point (who would have ever guessed?), will do some licking and grooming on Will as he bruxes off to sleep, and then they’ll both be out for a 20 minute power nap–the only kind rats ever take.

Will developed a lump low on his sternum last November. Thinking it was a rare case of a male mammary tumor, I had it removed–but not biopsied. My cheaper vet charges for that service, and I was flat broke at the time.

Always spring for the biopsy.

Cancer isn’t one disease, but many diseases,  each with it’s own growth patterns, trickery for survival, and susceptibilities to attack. Breeders, researchers, and veterinarians need to know what the domesticated rat is up against and plan their breeding protocols, treatments, and preventative measures accordingly. Without hard empirical data, they can’t do this. Entirely too many pet rat deaths are generically and unhelpfully attributed to “tumor” or “respiratory infection” without the vet or owner ever knowing what kind of tumor or what underlying disease may have led to the stress-triggered pneumonia…and thus the body of knowledge about pet rat health develops no further. This is simply unacceptable.

Will’s tumor was back within a month of his surgery and growing fast. So much for the economy vet route. This time, I took him to the excellent Dr. Sczepanski for Cadillac service and Volvo reliability. In keeping with her “big picture” approach to research, treatment, and her own continuing education, Dr. S. fosters an ongoing relationship with RADIL (Researcgh Animal Diagnostic Laboratory) here at the University of Missouri and thus charges her rat clients nothing for necropsies and biopsies, or whatever it is they call the act of yanking out a tumor and poking at it until it squeals its name.

Sczepanski took one look at Will and furrowed her brow. That really never is a good sign in a doctor’s office, is it? She wanted to schedule a second surgery as quickly as possible and virtually insisted that we send the tumor on to RADIL for identification. The results were about as bad as it gets; but as always, every cloud has a silver lining if you look hard enough for it. Will’s tumor was a fibrosarcoma, a cancer that literally roots into healthy tissue like some kind of terribly invasive tree, making clean surgical borders nearly impossible. But it doesn’t hurt. That’s it, that’s the lining.

Want to hear one of the ugliest sentences ever written? Try this on for size: “It is a well differentiated fibrosarcoma characterized by a proliferation of fibroblasts and with mitotic figures, nuclear variability and extensive local invasion into the surrounding muscle; neoplastic fibroblasts extend to the edges of the mass in all directions.”

Which is lab coat geek-speak for “cue the fat lady.”

At which point, I rallied the troops and put my fabulous friend Jenny, who just happens to be a veterinary oncologist as well as the best pet-sitter in the history of domestication, to the task of researching nonsurgical follow-up protocols. She got back to me with a fistful. It seems fibrosarcomas are hot on the research grant-making circuit just at present.

The coolest study involved a simple metronomic schedule of gentle chemotherapy, but with the fascinating addition of light electro-stim therapy applied once to the site of the tumor. The results were really encouraging. No pain, lots of gain. More than half of the subjects experienced significant shrinkage of the tumor, and all of them had notably slower rates of tumor growth after just one treatment.

Woo-hoo, I thought, every athletic trainer and physiology lab in the country has an electro-stim kit, right? You can’t take two steps on the Mizzou campus without tripping over someone’s electro-stim machine, and there are like four major vet schools within a day’s drive of here. Surely some lab near enough for grace would be repeating this study. Even if Will’s tumor didn’t shrink, he would still gain significant quality time, if we could  just slow down the tumor growth. Unfortunately, the study had only been conducted on dogs, and that was clear down at the University of Georgia.

Well, damn.

Undaunted, we settled for a metronomic protocol of doxycycline and piroxicam (a non-steroidal anti-inflamitory) administered daily in an attempt to thwart the tumor’s ability to develop the necessary blood vessels to feed itself. This treatment is generally used post-surgically to prevent recurrence or metastasization when only a few cells may be present. Starting treatment so far into a tumor’s growth would probably prove fruitless (and so it did), but the doxy would at the very least prevent a mycoplasma flair-up in his lungs in the meantime, and at any rate, the piroxicam would keep his old bones from aching from the added weight-load of the tumor.

The metronomic therapy did everything it was designed to do, but no more than that. Will’s lungs are as clear as a bell, and there’s no sign of metastasization. But nowadays he looks like a Pooh-bear with a naval orange tucked under his arm. Until just a few days ago, he could get around pretty well, and his spirits have never flagged. But now the bloody thing is just too big for his short forelegs. Also, I’ve had to give him  baby-wipe baths the last couple of days, since he can’t reach around that ugly lump to wash himself, and he’s such a fastidious little thing. Dirty and immobile is no way for a rat to live…or anybody else, for that matter.

So it’s certainly time. But it’s hard. The two of them are still toddling around on the bed, and Henslowe looks like he’s going to make a try for the laundry basket by my desk, fully 4 1/2 feet away, which if caught on film might well go viral on Youtube. Imagine a furry black water balloon launching itself across the room. Bansai! Plop.

In a little bit, we’ll have a light lunch of shrimp salad on a bed of greens with honeydew (a house favorite), take a swipe at folding that laundry, and answer some email. Then they’ll take another nap while I dig a hole under the azaleas and choose a vintage hanky big enough to wrap Will Shakespeare in. Then we’ll put on some Rusted Root and sing along to Will’s theme song on the way to the vet, and I’ll suck it up and cope.

Will has had a good life, and he’s brought me great joy all the days of it. He’s done his job, and now it’s time again for me to do mine and send him peacefully on his way. In the immortal words of Julian of Norwich, all shall be well and all  manner of things shall be well. The trick is in keeping your eye on the big picture.

You must listen to Will Shakespeare’s song if you haven’t already. It’ll make you happy. I promise. It’ll change your day for the better, as it has mine.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRbB4qt9vJQ&feature=related

Bansai Will Shakespeare, you quintessential big ol’ sweetie. Make the leap. Be on your way, and take my heart with you.