Luna Shines Her Light

07/12/2010

Most of the time, Sandra Thomas loves rainfall: she finds the sound of rain landing on surfaces comforting, and the sight of rain falling from the sky beautiful. But on one rainy night—specifically, the night of October 5, 2007—the rainfall didn’t seem comforting or beautiful at all.

Earlier that day, Thomas had found out that her black German Shepherd Dog, Luna von Burghard, had hemangiosarcoma.  “I got the diagnosis that afternoon,” recalls Thomas, who lives in Lake Mary, FL. “So that night, the rain felt more like an empathetic thing, as though God was crying with me.”  

Thomas had good reason to cry. Hemangiosarcoma is one of the cruelest of canine cancers. The disease initially develops slowly in the cells that line a dog’s blood vessels, but then spreads rapidly to form tumors in the animal’s vital organs. Visible symptoms of the disease often aren’t evident until the dog goes into acute shock and collapses. All too often, a diagnosis of hemangiosarcoma precedes death from the disease by only a few months or even weeks.

To make matters worse, Luna’s case wasn’t typical. Hemangiosarcoma tends to strike middle-aged or senior dogs. However, Luna was only two years old—just barely beyond puppyhood.

“As a breeder and owner of 12 German Shepherds, I had not encountered this disease,” says Thomas. “And this puppy had an abundance of joie de vivre, prey drive and personality. She also had an excellent nose:  she could have been a service dog, bomb sniffing dog, or a search-and-rescue dog.

None of those futures was now possible, but Luna nevertheless lived for nearly a year after she was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma. However, that year proved challenging. The effort to slow the cancer’s progression included surgery to amputate Luna’s leg and remove part of her pelvis, conventional chemotherapy and genetic therapy. But, in the end, even those heroic measures were not enough to save her. The tumors spread to the young bitch’s lungs and brain, and Thomas finally decided to euthanize Luna on September 16, 2008.

But even though Luna had died, Thomas was determined to find a way for her to live on in some fashion. Shortly after Luna’s diagnosis, Thomas had learned through the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) about the work of Matthew Breen, Ph.D., and Tessa Breen at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Primarily we are investigating changes that occur to chromosomes in canine cancers, comparing these to changes that occur in the corresponding human cancers,” explains Dr. Breen. “[Then we use] this comparative information to narrow down regions that may contain key genes of interest.” The knowledge generated from such studies can lead to new, effective therapies for both human and canine cancer patients.

After learning about the Breens’ work, Thomas decided that she wanted to help—not only by enrolling Luna, her parents and her littermates in the Breens’ research program, but also by making a monetary donation to the Breens’ research program in Luna’s memory. “I thought that if nothing could be done for Luna, at least Luna might be able to do something for someone else,” explains Thomas.

Inspired by Thomas’s effort to help with canine cancer research, Dr. Breen found a novel use for her donation. “I decided that we would use these funds to create an award, the Luna Award, in honor of Luna’s memory,” he recalls. “The basis for the award was that it would recognize a young investigator, selected by a panel of experts, whose work held the most promise for advancing our knowledge about cancer and thus most likely to impact cancer management in the near future. I decided that this award would be made part of the CHF’s Genes, Dogs and Cancer conference series, which next to be held in Orlando in February 2009 … Coincidentally, Sandra lives close to where the conference was to be held and so was able to attend and present the award in person.”

That first Luna Award for Advances in Canine Cancer Research was presented to Jennifer McCleese, Ph.D., of The Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. McCleese’s presentation outlined her experiments in using a protein inhibitor to slow the growth of osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that occurs mainly among large- and giant-breed dogs such as Saint Bernards, Rottweilers, Great Danes, Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, Doberman Pinschers, and Labrador Retrievers.  

Thomas was thrilled to be able to present the award to McCleese, and to honor her dog.  “I wanted to do anything to encourage research to answer questions about this horrible disease,” Thomas says. “What I remember most about Luna was her calm focus [during her treatment]. She had a tremendous life force and joie de vivre. Whatever another dog did, she’d do 10 times more intensely. She was just so alive.”

Thomas also feels that the award helps Luna live up to the spirit of her name—which is the same as that of the first Roman goddess of the moon. It’s no coincidence that when Luna died, Thomas placed a memorial advertisement in the German Shepherd Review, and that the ad has a moon in the background. Adds Thomas, “the text [of the ad] says ‘shine on, shine on.’ ”

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