Skip to content
Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Sienna and Sierra — a True Tail

Updated: January 8th, 2021


Peggy Benson of Jacksonville, Florida, tells her True Tail about Sienna’s dog cancer. This beautiful Golden Retriever with adrenal carcinoma endured a complicated surgery on her cancer journey, and ended up giving a gift beyond price to her beloved family.

Have your own True Tail to tell?

A “True Tail” of Two Golden Retrievers

by Peggy Benson, Jacksonville, FL

It seemed to happen out of nowhere… but that’s what so many people say when their dog is diagnosed with cancer. Well, I’d like to share our story and how we lost someone who was so very dear to us, but who also gave us something priceless in return.

Sienna had a carcinoma on her adrenal gland.

Sienna gave her family a priceless gift as a result of her cancer journey. Thank you to Peggy for sharing her “True Tail.”

It started out as just another typical day. My husband and I took out beloved Golden Retriever, Sienna, for a car ride to the store. I went inside the store while my husband, proud dad that he is, sat on a bench outside with Sienna so everyone passing by could see her and maybe stop to give her a pat on the head and chat. While sitting there, Sienna started chomping on something she found under the bench (something she usually never does). My husband immediately examined what she had put in her mouth and promptly pulled out a chicken bone.

Sienna loved beach walks with her BFF, Tesse.

Sienna loved walking on Atlantic Beach with her BFF, Matisse the Great Dane.

He didn’t think anything of it at the time until he and I noticed that night that Sienna was restless. She couldn’t seem to find a comfortable place to lie down all night long. We both awoke the next morning, shared our observations and came to the conclusion that we should take her to the vet that afternoon although she had no visible signs of sickness or great distress.

During the vet’s examination, she discovered a palpable lump on her one side. It was then that my husband mentioned the chicken bone, but said he thought he had removed all of it from her mouth. The doctor took an X-ray and discovered a large mass on what looked like her spleen and then sent us all home for the night with explicate instructions to keep her calm, give her lots and lots of loving and bring her back first thing in the morning for emergency surgery. She also instructed us that if we needed to lift her, by no means lift her around her abdomen to prevent the mass from bursting.

When the vet performed the surgery the next morning she discovered quite to her surprise that the mass was not on her spleen, but on one node of her liver and about the size of two fists. The good news was that the mass was benign, but she saw another mass further down in Sienna’s retroperitoneal space that she said looked rather “angry.” She couldn’t reach it to remove it. However, she was able to get a sample for testing. The test results came back as fatty tissue and was determined inconclusive. It was then that our vet referred us to a veterinary oncologist.

We took Sienna home the same night, high on morphine, connected to an IV of fluids and armed with syringes of morphine in hand. The vet thought it might take her about four days for her to begin to show signs of her old self, considering she was 11 1/2 years old. To the doctor’s surprise, she recovered from the surgery remarkably well and was completely back to normal within 48 hours. In fact we had to curb her activity to give the incision time to heal.

Melatonin for Dog Cancer

Dr. Dressler recommends sleeping in total darkness to stimulate melatonin production. Here’s Sienna following doctor’s orders — even while napping.

It was that same week when I discovered and ordered Dr. Dressler’s Dog Cancer Survival Guide and absorbed it as quickly as I could. It is now well highlighted and dog eared (no pun intended). Shortly thereafter my husband started to wean Sienna from her “gourmet” store-bought dry and canned food onto Dr. Dressler’s recommended cancer diet and we started giving her Apocaps. And, before too long, Sienna looked and acted fitter than ever… not to mention she totally loved the new diet! We could almost hear her saying “Where has this delicious food been all of my life?”

Next step… Sienna got an ultrasound and a needle aspiration with the hope of getting a better diagnosis of the retroperitoneal area mass. The result was still inconclusive.

On Christmas Eve we took Sienna to the oncologist for a consultation and after viewing the ultrasound that was performed at our regular vet’s office, she thought the mass looked like a hematoma. However, she added that she specialized in the retroperitoneal space in veterinary school and had never seen a hematoma that enormous before. She scheduled Sienna for a CT scan the next week to get a clearer image of her entire abdominal area and suggested the CT scan be performed at a human facility where the equipment was more sophisticated.

Sienna loved Santa and looked forward to her annual Christmas photo.

Sienna loved Santa and looked forward to her annual Christmas photo.

The mass on the CT scan clearly showed a hematoma and not cancer, but it was a mystery to the doctor how it could have happened. Since hematomas are pockets of blood that are cause by some sort of trauma, none of us could figure out what that trauma could have been. The oncologist went on to say everything else looked fine and Sienna’s liver surgery site had healed very nicely. I’ll never forget that Friday she had the CT scan, because I was so ecstatic that Sienna did not have cancer that I shed tears of joy all the way home. I even called our primary care vet’s office from the car to tell them the good news.

Then on Monday, when the radiologist read the CT scan, our world came tumbling down. He found a pea-sized carcinoma on her adrenal gland. The oncologist told us that this type of cancer was not uncommon in older dogs and many people never know their dog even has it because it is very slow-growing and presents virtually no symptoms. She added that there is really no treatment for it, but she suggested we have the hematoma removed because of its size since it was not going away on its own, as hematomas usually do, and it would at some point impinge on her kidneys and other organs.

Because the surgery would be very bloody, she suggested we have the surgery done by the chief of surgery in the veterinary oncology department at our state university an hour and a half away from our home. She told us the doctor there was one of the best surgeons in the country and adrenal gland cancer was one of his specialties. In addition, she added that their intensive care unit was superb.

When the oncologist consulted with the university surgeon, he told her that he was almost sure that the hematoma was the result of Sienna’s adrenal gland tumor bleeding out, which he said is not uncommon and can also occur suddenly. And the most common symptom of the bleed? … Restlessness. All the puzzle pieces were beginning to fall into place.

We had to wait three weeks to get an appointment with the university surgeon, but they assured us, the surgery was not urgent. However, because we were coming from out of town, they scheduled the surgery for the day after the consult. When we arrived at the university, we signed in and took our seats in the waiting room awaiting our appointment. While we were sitting there a nice couple sat down near us with their 1 1/2 year old dog who has just been diagnosed with a very rare form of osteosarcoma (bone cancer). Having soaked Dr. Dressler’s book up like a sponge, my husband and I immediately told them about the book and Dr. D’s incredible whole food diet we had started Sienna on even before her official diagnosis.

Dr. Dressler’s book is a must-read for everyone facing dog cancer.

The couple was so interested in what we had to say, that they ordered two paperback copies of the book from their iPad right then and there. The next day, I brought them my copy to read while we all spent hours on end sitting and waiting. They were so impressed by the book that they couldn’t wait for their paperback copies to arrive, so they ordered the eBook version.

There were dozens of people that came and went through the doors of that university waiting room while we were there those few days… many of whom we shared friendly conversations. However, call it fate or whatever you want, but we bonded with that one couple as we all went through our ordeals with our beloved four-legged companions. (I’ll explain why I call it “fate” in a few minutes.)

When we were called in for our consult, the surgeon performed another CT scan and told us that the hematoma had shrunk slightly since the previous CT scan, but that it really needed to be removed. (My husband and I wondered for a moment, if the hematoma had possibly gone down in size as a result of the Apocaps.) The surgeon said there was a 90 percent success rate with this kind of surgery and, of that 90 percent, 80 percent of the patients go home with a few pain medications and die of something unrelated years later. He said if all goes well, he should be able to remove the hematoma without it bursting. So, we brought Sienna back the next morning for the surgery.

This is an image we created of Sienna years ago to promote a business we have making angel photos of people's pets. We're so glad to have this image now.

This is an image we created of Sienna years ago to promote a business we have making angel photos of people’s pets. We’re so glad to have this image now.

Hours later, we met with the surgeon to hear the results of the operation. He told us, as he made his first incision through the same incision site as her previous surgery, he promptly cut into her intestines, which was a total surprise. Apparently, when Sienna’s first incision healed, the scar tissue bonded to the intestinal wall and she developed lesions all long the site. The surgeon said he had performed hundreds of surgeries over the years and had never seen a dog or a cat heal that way. He had only seen this happen in horses. Hence, he spent the first 45 minutes in the OR removing a small section of her intestines before starting the planned surgery to remove the hematoma and adrenal gland.

The good news was, the planned part of the surgery went smoothly. He was able to remove the hematoma in one piece and relocate her kidney back to where it belonged. We were unable to see her as she was still heavily sedated, so it was suggested we go back to our hotel for the night and they would call us later and let us know how she was doing. At around 10 pm the attending surgical intern texted us a photo of Sienna up and outside walking around and I swear she had a smile on her face. The doctor said she was a “tough girl” and the hospital would give us an update in the morning.

At 8 am they called and said she had been panting quite a bit during the night and they weren’t sure if it was due to pain or a side effect of the morphine, which I recall her doing when I took her home from her previous surgery. They tried to give her something to eat but she refused so they gave her something for nausea in case that was the problem. It was suggested we bring her some of that great homemade food we were raving about and maybe we could coax her to eat.

When we arrived, we were escorted to an exam room and all three surgeons were there to tell us something had gone terribly wrong. Sienna’s blood pressure was dropping, her heart rate was elevated, her abdomen was a bit swollen and she was running a fever. Our hearts sank. I asked if we could see her, but they suggested it was best we did not because they were trying to stabilize her so they could bring her back into surgery to find out what was going on and seeing us may exacerbate things. The plan was to wait two hours to get her stabilized. So back to the waiting room we went and into the arms of our newfound friends.

Two hours later, the doctors called us back into the room to tell us they couldn’t stabilize her and if they didn’t go into surgery now, that they would lose her… and they may even lose her on the table. Needless to say, we were numb.

A few hours later, we were summoned into the exam room once again. And again all the surgeons were there. The chief of surgery told us that he really didn’t think he’d be standing there right then telling us that she survived the second surgery, but she did. What they discovered was a shock to us all. The area where they had removed part of the intestine had opened. Plus, when they moved the omentum (the fatty membrane that “hangs” in front of the abdominal organs) the day before to get to the surgery site, they had unknowingly torn part of the scar tissue from the liver surgery. So, she was also leaking bile, which is akin to battery acid. Therefore, what Sienna was now dealing with was peritonitis… not what any of us had expected or bargained for at all.

The surgeon told us that the next 24 hours were critical and that they had done everything surgically possible to save her. Now it was up to Sienna whether she could bounce back from the trauma her body had endured. Again we retreated to our hotel room, hoping and praying real hard.

I’ll never forget the call… it came 27 hours after her last surgery. She had battled hard but had lost.

In retrospect, my husband and I thought maybe we should have waited to have the surgery performed to see if the hematoma would shrink more. Maybe it WAS the Apocaps beginning to work their magic. After all, the oncologist said the adrenal gland tumor was a very slow-growing type of cancer that posed no significant risk or real symptoms. And the only reason she recommended surgery was because of the hematoma, not the tumor. Considering Sienna’s age of almost 12, and her otherwise good health and vitality, she may have just died of old age sometime later. Of course, we will never know for sure. The surgeon told us later that we made all the hard decisions at the right times. We take comfort in knowing that we had total confidence Sienna was in excellent hands, we took the best professionals’ advice and she had remarkable care every step of the way. (Even one of the university staff came out to tell us after Sienna had passed that she had never left her side that entire last night.)

When we arrived at the hospital to say our final goodbyes, our friends were there, as they had been every single day… vowing we would all stay in touch, for we had forged a bond that lasts forever.

However, at the time my husband and I had no idea what wonderful joy was in store for us a short four months later… all because of that wonderful couple we met that day in the university waiting room. Yes… it does get better.

Throughout the days, weeks and months after losing Sienna, we kept in touch with our university friends. They lost their beloved companion a mere 7 weeks later, but like Sienna, their dog, too, had some of the greatest days doing some of her most favorite things with the humans that loved them so much… and all the while LOVING that homemade food that was mixed with lots and lots of unconditional love.

As time passed we begin to consider getting another Golden Retriever, although, we knew in our hearts there would never be another Sienna. But, we also felt a void that only another dog would ever be able to fill. As I began my search for a Golden Retriever I knew, because of all the medical bills we incurred with Sienna, that money was a concern. We considered adopting, but we both wanted the experience of raising a puppy again. So, as I began our search, I happened to mention in one of our numerous emails to our university friends that we were looking for another Golden Retriever with which to share our lives, but our budget was limited. We just wanted a happy, healthy Golden puppy.

I swear, it wasn’t 10 minutes later when we received an email back from our friends that asked if we would be interested in the pick of the litter from a 2-day-old litter of pups that came from 5 generations of champion bloodlines on both sides. It turns out that their next-door neighbor is a dog judge and knew about a breeder whose champion dam had just given birth. But, the most incredible part of all was the breeder sets aside one pup from every litter for a special cause or circumstance. And when she heard Sienna’s story, she was so touched that she chose us to be that special circumstance this time!

I am thrilled to report that we are now the proud parents of an absolutely adorable, healthy, happy 4-month-old Golden Retriever named Sierra.

Sierra is Sienna's "sequel."

Meet Sierra, Sienna’s gift to her family.

And the couple that made it all happen? … Well, they are Sierra’s Godparents, of course.

I truly believe, everything happens for a reason and there was a higher plan at work when that amazing couple sat down beside us in the university waiting room that day.

Sienna left a legacy that will never be forgotten… and her “sequel,” Sierra, I’m sure will do the same.

Peggy Benson is a writer, editor and graphic artist who shares her Jacksonville, Florida home with a devoted husband, three lovable kitties, Bob, Oreo and Annie, and an adorable Golden Retriever puppy named Sierra. She wrote this True Tail in loving memory of her Golden Retriever, Sienna, who passed away on February 28, 2013.

More True Tails

Riley the Dog Thrives Despite Soft Tissue Sarcoma and Lung Cancer

Honey the Dog Survives 5 Years Past Lymphoma Diagnosis, Passes Peacefully in Her Sleep

Leave a Comment

  1. doximom on September 11, 2013 at 6:42 am

    Thank you for sharing your story. You are a very good writer, and I felt like I was right there with you in your battle to save Sienna. I am Otis’s mom (also on the pages of the DCCFund somewhere), and Otis is close to being a one year cancer (anal gland) survivor, thanks to the DCCF. I hope you enjoy Sierra. She is a little ball of adorable! 🙂

  2. bernermomma on September 11, 2013 at 6:41 am

    This takes me back to when I lost my berner Sybil to stomach cancer. I should do this for my current berners. I know when a pet leaves us they leave the lesson behind… adopt another and give them the same care as you’ve shown them 🙂 bittersweet but TRUE

  3. PennyPeony on September 11, 2013 at 3:07 am

    What a beautiful and touching story!!! May you have many years of love and happiness with Sierra <3 I am sure your Sienna is looking down from that bridge smiling!! It was diff for me to read this.. As soon as I saw the name in my email, my breath caught as this was out dogs name that we lost on 6/5/12 to cancer :'( I hope both of our Sienna's a running the fields and chasing balls over the Rainbow Bridge

  4. Deb E on September 11, 2013 at 1:47 am

    A truly wonderful story. And a tribute to you, Sienna, your friends & the wonderful breeder 🙂

  5. Jo on September 11, 2013 at 1:26 am

    Beautiful story – I’m shedding tears of sadness for your loss of your beautiful girl, but so pleased you made some amazing friends and can continue to have the wonderful gift of Sierra in your lives x

Scroll To Top