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Devastating cancer diagnosis leads to Gus’ underdog story

Closeup of Gus, a white Labrador retriever.
It has now been roughly three years since Gus’ diagnosis. At 12, Gus has lost a step or two, and he is blind in his right eye due to the radiation treatments, but he is still active, happy and healthy.

John and Olivia Graffe couldn’t have been prouder of their son Malkolm (’19 DVM) as he walked across the Beasley Coliseum stage at Washington State University and was handed his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine diploma.

But there was also sadness for the Vashon Island couple. Just days earlier, veterinarians at WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital had discovered a deadly cancer growing in the jaw of their 9-year-old Labrador retriever, Gus. It was the same type of cancer – mandibular osteosarcoma – that just more than a decade earlier had claimed the life of their previous Labrador, Eddie. 

While it was a devastating diagnosis, there was some hope. This time, Gus would be under the care of WSU’s oncology team, led by the university’s senior veterinary oncologist, Dr. Janean Fidel. 

“It is a hard thing to hear that your dog has cancer, but we knew he could get the best care at WSU,” Olivia said. “We had hopes that they could treat him, and we said we were going to go for it.” 

Osteosarcoma is the most common primary bone tumor in dogs, accounting for roughly 85% of tumors in the canine skeleton. They can be quite painful and can appear in any bone, although they are most frequent in front limbs and long bones, including the radius, ulna, humerus, femur, and tibia. Osteosarcomas can be very aggressive and spread to the lungs and other bones in the body. Most dogs diagnosed with the cancer do not survive more than a year.

However, osteosarcomas that start in the oral cavity – as was the case for Gus – tend to have a better prognosis. 

The first signs of Gus’ cancer were noted in April of 2019 when he was seen by his regular veterinarian for a dental appointment, during which a massive infection was discovered deep in his mouth around his molars.

“He was prescribed antibiotics and went through two courses, but nothing was working,” Olivia said.

Malkolm, on the other side of the state wrapping up his final year of veterinary school, had grown concerned and convinced his parents to bring Gus along to his May graduation and for an appointment at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. There, a CT scan provided evidence of osteosarcoma.

Fidel, though, was optimistic that radiation therapy using WSU’s linear accelerator, or LINAC, followed by chemotherapy could, potentially, make Gus more comfortable and give him more time with his family. 

It has now been roughly three years since Gus’ diagnosis. At 12, Gus has lost a step or two, and he is blind in his right eye due to the radiation treatments, but he is still active, happy, and healthy. 

Every six months, Gus receives a chest radiograph to ensure cancer has not spread to other areas of his body. So far, nothing of concern has been detected.

Throughout the entire ordeal, John and Olivia have been grateful for the care Gus received at WSU.

“The veterinary students at that time, the techs, like oncology technician Kasey Burton, and Dr. Fidel and her colleagues were just awesome,” Olivia said. “It is an incredible place.”

Every day they have with Gus is a gift. 

“I don’t think any of us would have thought that three years later,” John said, “not only would he be here but be doing so well.”

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