Mandy Marquis was told her foster dog had terminal cancer on her birthday last year.
But she wasn’t ready to give up hope for Cayenne, a playful pit bull terrier.
“That night when I went home after I found out she was terminal, I looked at her and I said, ‘You’re not done, and I’m gonna help you,’” Marquis said. “... I knew by looking at her she was not ready to give up.”
Marquis, of Jerseyville, is an urgent care foster with Partners For Pets, a Troy-based animal shelter. She takes critically hurt stray animals and nurses them back to health. Sometimes, though, all Marquis can offer is hospice care.
But she says Cayenne, who is thought to be 4 years old or younger, wasn’t like her other terminal foster animals.
“I get hospice cases and I go, ‘OK, I’m gonna love you ’til the end, and I’m gonna be here, and I’m gonna show you what love’s about,’” Marquis said. “She had a will to live like I had never seen. Even though I’ve done this for 15 years, and I’ve seen some pretty extreme cases and had some pass on me, I just knew we couldn’t let her go.”
When the dog came to live with Marquis in early September, she had a large tumor in her jaw. Marquis said the mass was the size of a baseball at its largest.
At first, the shelter and veterinary team at Horseshoe Lake Animal Hospital in Collinsville hoped it could be surgically removed. But CT scans at the University of Missouri showed the tumor was cancerous and that cancer was also in Cayenne’s tongue and lymph nodes.
“We were told at that time that there was nothing they could do,” Marquis said. “They would have to remove her tongue. Dogs’ lives without a tongue, it’s very miserable. It’s force-feeding. As a rescue group, we have to remember what’s humane.”
Marquis went online the day after getting that news in search of some other way to help Cayenne.
“I was looking at different herbal medications and just trying to learn about this type of cancer, and it came up that there was a chemo that they had just created for this type of cancer. And when I clicked on it — by the grace of God, that’s the only thing I can think — it had a headline that said, ‘Now accepting trials for dogs,’” Marquis said.
Today, months after Cayenne’s terminal diagnosis, the dog has been declared cancer free, Marquis said.
“I couldn’t believe it. ... Those two words. I had a feeling they were going to say she had a little bit of cancer, and that wasn’t going to worry me because I knew it had decreased enough to where we could do the jaw removal, and hopefully, with a couple more treatments, we would hear ‘cancer free,’” Marquis said. “But to hear that her lymph nodes were actually cancer free just mind-boggled me.”
Marquis had taken time off work every third Friday to drive Cayenne more than 200 miles to the Kansas animal hospital where she received chemotherapy injections directly into her tumor at no cost to her caretakers.
“I would leave about 6 in the morning, get back about midnight,” Marquis said.
The company developing the cancer treatment is HylaPharm, a spinoff of the University of Kansas. Its CEO, Dr. Daniel Aires, said it gives the university an opportunity to take research into the real world. Aires is the director of dermatology at KU.
He said Cayenne’s case shows the ability of the drug, called HylaPlat, to turn a cancer that can’t be fixed into one that can. The types of cancers it could help are known as nonresectable, Aires said, which means they can’t be surgically removed — like Cayenne’s. The treatment has been successful in dogs trials by targeting the cancerous areas and getting into lymph nodes, according to Aires.
The company’s goal is to eventually make the drug available to people with nonresectable cancers.
“People who have these cancers, they don’t have good options,” Aires said. He estimates that human trials could start within a year and a half to two years.
After Cayenne’s four injections of the drug, Marquis said HylaPharm suggested they go back to Mizzou for a partial jaw removal surgery to get rid of the dog’s tumor.
“I think the reaction was, ‘She’s still alive?’” Marquis said of the university. “They had not heard from us for several months. They didn’t give her more than a couple weeks when they released her. I drove her to Kansas within a week of her being deemed terminal and started chemo.”
The tumor was recently removed in a $5,000 surgery that was paid for by donations to Partners For Pets.
Marquis said specialists think Cayenne had lived with the mass for her entire life. She doesn’t think it ever bothered Cayenne, though, because she ate, drank and played like a healthy dog. But Cayenne has been through other hardships.
When she was found by Madison County Animal Control, Marquis says Cayenne was just 23 pounds, full of fleas and had ear mites. There were clues that she had been used for breeding.
“Basically, somebody who more than likely was breeding pit bulls in their backyard did not care anything about the dogs, about their medical well being, about even feeding them, for that matter, just wanted to produce puppies basically to sell,” Marquis said.
Within a month under Marquis’ care, she said Cayenne doubled her body weight.
“Actually her favorite thing — she likes to go to work with me — so when I get my McDonald’s coffee in the morning, she gets a sausage biscuit. She was able to eat just everything. It wasn’t that the tumor was stopping her from being able to eat. It’s just that they didn’t put food in her bowl.”
Fostering sick and hurt animals is hard, Marquis says, because eventually they have to leave — even Cayenne, who will soon live with a veterinary technician assistant from Horseshoe Lake Animal Hospital and his two dogs.
“You cry a lot,” Marquis said. “... At the end of the day, either they get adopted like (Cayenne) and they live great lives or they knew love when they passed.”
Cayenne’s new home will be in Granite City with Matty McKee, who has worked at the animal hospital since August. He’s also a full-time firefighter in East St. Louis.
McKee says he fell in love with Cayenne the first time he met her at the hospital.
“There’s something about her eyes, it pulled me in,” he said.
It was “like a punch in the stomach” when McKee was told Cayenne was terminal, he said.
“I got a hold of Mandy, ‘OK, I still want to come see her. Can I get with her and have some time with her?’” he said. “... It was, ‘OK, I’ll be perfectly happy with her just sitting on my lap, curled up, just getting to hold her.’”
McKee was preparing himself for Cayenne’s eventual euthanasia, he said, when Marquis called to say she might have found a way to save her.
“It was a big sigh of relief knowing that she was going to get some help,” he said.
When Cayenne has recovered from her jaw surgery in a few weeks, she’ll be ready to go home. The dog is one of 40 animals Marquis has fostered in the last year alone.
When her work is finished with one, she says she tries to think of the other animals that need help.
“As much as I love them, I will get a call tomorrow for another one because it doesn’t stop. I never get a break,” Marquis said. “My husband has said for five or six years, ‘Mandy, when are you going to take a break?’ and I say, ‘After this foster,’ and there’s usually one lined up that I haven’t told him about yet that needs me.”
Marquis has always been an animal lover, she said. She volunteers with Partners For Pets, but her career is in insurance investments. She encourages her clients to bring their dogs when they visit.
“It really has nothing to do with animals, but a lot of my clients say, ‘Is this a vet’s office or is this an insurance agency?’ jokingly because there’s always one running around,” she said.
Marquis has two dogs and two cats of her own at home, and two daughters — a 12-year-old and 1-year-old — who are animal lovers like her.
“My 1-year-old, her first word was ‘dog,’” she said.
More dog trials
Dr. Daniel Aires said HylaPharm is accepting more dogs for trials of its cancer treatment drug, HylaPlat, which is injected directly into areas of the body affected by cancer. Those interested in getting a sick dog in a trial, based in Kansas, should call 913-588-3840.