Coping with cancer in pets

How the passing of two beloved dogs sparked an organization that provides support and educational resources to those dealing with cancer in their own companions.

“I’ll never forget that phone call from the vet telling me Riedel had cancer,” Mark Tillinger says. “She was a special dog, and I loved her with all my heart. I was angry that cancer had chosen her, and scared I was going to lose her.”

Mark put together a team of veterinarians, including a holistic practitioner, to treat his beloved Bernese mountain dog. They attacked the cancer aggressively, turning a three-month prognosis into 18 months of quality life. Ironically, Mark was diagnosed with prostate cancer himself during this same period. Riedel gave him strength and inspiration as he fought his own ultimately successful battle.

Mark eventually lost Riedel to the disease, but he was determined to turn the experience into something positive. At first, he wasn’t sure exactly how he would honor his companion. “I wanted Riedel’s legacy to change the world,” he says. “She changed my life for the better, and I wanted her struggle and death to mean something.”

Initially, Mark thought about donating money to a veterinary college or cancer research fund, but something bigger was on the horizon. Riedel’s primary oncologist was Dr. Gerald Post, whose partner, David Duchemin, managed the veterinary practice. “I developed a friendship with Dr. Post, and I knew David on the periphery,” Mark says. “One day we had lunch, and he brought David along. He told me his story, and it was remarkably similar to mine.”

David’s Rottweiler, Cody, began her own struggle with cancer when a tiny sore on her paw turned out to be digital melanoma, leading to the amputation of one of her toes. Ultrasounds revealed cancer in her lungs, and in her liver. It turned out to be an aggressive type that can kill a dog within weeks. Cody was treated with chemotherapy and experimental therapies. She maintained a good quality of life for several months, but eventually David had to let her go.

Great minds think alike

Like Mark, David was inspired to turn his tragedy into a legacy. “We shared a similar story and connected around a common objective,” Mark says. “We essentially hatched the idea to start an organization called The Riedel & Cody Fund at that lunch in December of 2010. We ran with it, put it all together, and here we are.”

The “here” is an online community and treatment fund that helps people cope with a cancer diagnosis in their animals. Each year, 12 million dogs and cats are diagnosed with this disease, so the organization has its work cut out for it. The website provides a vehicle for people to connect with others going through the same experience, or those who have already been through it and can provide support and understanding.

You can also tap into research information and learn about any kind of cancer treatment, from traditional to experimental to holistic, as well as fi nd both traditional and holistic veterinarians. You can even create a personal blog about your experiences. The group also has an active Facebook page, with personal messages and links to current articles. “The more people we have, the more vibrant and powerful the community becomes,” Mark says. The organization even offers help with vet bills if you’ve exhausted your own funds, although Mark says only a small percentage of people come to them for fi nancial support. It’s the sense of community and the educational resources most people are looking for. “Providing support and information through our website and social media like Facebook is at our core,” Mark explains. “People here can reach out to others, learn what to expect and what side effects might come from certain treatments, and share their feelings with others who understand. Tapping into that knowledge is invaluable. It’s one of the major things we do.”

Encouraging an integrative approach

The Riedel & Cody Fund promotes an integrative approach to cancer treatment. “We believe that treating the entire being, including the owner, is very, very important,” Mark explains. “Anecdotal evidence drove me to focus on an integrative plan with Riedel, and I’m convinced it’s why she did so well for so long. They gave her three months, and she lived for 18. I can’t prove it scientifi cally, but I’m sure that combining chemo and radiation with homeopathic treatments gave her the extra time. We don’t dictate what a person should do because it’s a choice they should make for themselves, but we try to share our understanding of the integrative approach so they have all the information they need.” Mark adds that he hopes to someday fund research into the benefi ts of integrative medicine. “Ultimately, I’d like to add to the body of knowledge around integrative treatment protocols.”

Mark also hopes to eventually take The Riedel & Cody Fund in additional new directions. “One thing we’re highly interested in is working with rescues. There are so many wonderful rescue organizations, and often they take in an animal that’s sick and needs medical help. There’s a whole area to explore there – helping groups around the country by providing treatment for sick animals so they can be more adoptable.

“We’ve also talked about moving more into funding research,” Mark continues. “For example, we have a relationship with North Carolina State University’s veterinary college, specifically their bone marrow transplant program. We’ve funded some animals going through that protocol for lymphoma, and we love what they’re doing there. We’d also like to help with things like new equipment.”

Ultimately, Mark says he’d love The Riedel & Cody Fund to become an umbrella organization. “We could knit together other animal charities and research projects to present one united face to donors,” he explains. “We’re a public charity, so we’ll do as much as the public enables us to do through donations. The more support we get, the more we can achieve.”

These might be ambitious goals, especially for a non-profit organization, but Mark and David are ideally suited to achieve them, because they know firsthand what it’s like to be faced with a cancer diagnosis in a beloved dog or cat. “We want to help people who receive the same news we received,” Mark says. “We know it’s a traumatic time because we lived through it very personally.”


Barb Nefer is an Orlando-based freelance writer specializing in travel, pets, and personal finance.