At one point in her memoir Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved My Life, veterinarian surgical oncologist Sarah Boston reveals that a lot of the families of her canine cancer patients seem to want to be friends with her – and this is an ethical line she just can’t cross, even though during the process of her saving their dog’s life, yes, it can start to feel like they’ve all become quite close. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to be pals with her. She’s witty, she’s smart, she has a red Vespa. In this decidedly untypical cancer memoir, she tells the story of her thyroid cancer diagnosis and treatment in a manner that is, on one hand, clinical – she knows a lot about medicine and is, in particular, a thyroid tumour expert – and, on the other, courageously honest, and funny without being trite.
The chapters about her own cancer battle alternate with in-clinic vignettes about the dogs she has treated and saved – or sometimes, not been able to save. (Or sometimes, only been able to save for long enough to see them succumb to something else or be killed in a senseless accident.) You don’t have to be an animal lover to be charmed by these stories. In fact, when I started reading the book I was a canine cancer treatment skeptic: I’d seen friends practically remortgage their houses to give their cancer-stricken dogs just a few more months. I was guilty of thinking, It’s just a dog – let him go. But this book reminded me that so often, a dog is not just a dog. Boston’s stories about the almost sacred bond between dog and owner that she has witnessed and shared with her own dogs reminded me of the little Lhasa Apso I had as a child. His name was Toby, and I raised the $400 to buy him myself; I still have his puppy nose print, tucked into a book; and I still miss him, even more than 20 years later. Without resorting to overblown sentimentality, Boston does an impeccable job of teasing out the ways in which dogs capture our hearts.
She balances this with crisp revelations about her own cancer story. Because she has access to an ultrasound machine – no matter that it’s technically meant to be used on animals – she is able to ignore her doctor’s blasé reaction to the lump in her neck and have a look at it herself. This part of the book is surprisingly light, but cancer does not turn out to be all noir-comedy and shoe shopping. The difficulty of navigating Canada’s health-care system when you are sure you have cancer, and no one else believes that you do, is fist-clenchingly frustrating. And it doesn’t get any better when Boston is finally handed the results she had already self-diagnosed. She is often treated as though she is hysterical, or dismissed. She comes across other patients during her journey who have had to fight just as hard to be heard and treated. The picture she paints of our health-care system is unflattering at best – and mostly horrendous.
But while I accept the point Boston was trying to make as she alternated between her story and the stories of her patients – basically, that animals get better care in the open market than people do in our socialized system – her health-care-system-as-villain approach was overly simplistic. After one of Boston’s clients left her clinic with a $50,000 donation of gratitude (nothing more than pocket change to them; they were loaded) I realized that only a dog with a family who has money (maybe not millions, but more money than a typical Canadian family) will receive the kind of care Boston wanted for herself. The majority of families don’t have unlimited cash at their disposal, though. And so, if we changed things up and treated ourselves like dogs, this would mean rich people would get chemo and ground-breaking drugs, while poor people would be put to sleep when the money ran out.
That said, Boston provides a much-needed look at the way our socialized system works – or, more importantly, doesn’t work. If you’re intelligent, if you know people, if you have the wherewithal and the words to fight for yourself, you can, eventually, get the medical care you need. If you don’t, your cancer will probably be caught and treated, but you might be so far gone at that point that your treatment will be more about slashing and burning than the more gentle options that could have been available if you had been listened to when you first noticed the lump. We deserve better, and this makes Lucky Dog an essential read, not just for dog lovers or people who wanted to be a veterinarian when they were five (come on, who didn’t?) but also for all Canadians who have fought their way through the health-care system, even for something as simple as getting a family doctor. Boston’s story should serve as a wake-up call that all is not as it should be, no matter how smug we are about our universal health care. Boston is right: the system is broken. She was lucky to have survived it.
Marissa Stapley is the author of Mating for Life, a novel.