Nonprofit helps fund cancer treatment for local dog
Blacksburg residents Jon Simmons and Rachael DeMeglio found themselves at a crossroad in December when Brutus, the married couple’s 118-pound Rottweiler, began fighting for his life.
About three years earlier, the two had traveled to Ohio to pick up their new friend, who weighed about 4 pounds at the time. Just a few months ago, the couple wasn’t sure what the future would hold for him.
On that December morning, Brutus woke up with swelling underneath his neck about the size of a tennis ball. Fearing it was cancer, the couple took him to their veterinarian.
The veterinarian confirmed their fears when he suggested Brutus might have lymphoma, but to be sure, he referred Brutus to the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg to obtain an official diagnosis.
“We had to wait a week until we could get Brutus in at the Virginia Tech veterinary school,” DeMeglio said. “The waiting was the worst part, but we tried to stay hopeful that it wasn’t cancer.”
At Brutus’ appointment, fluid was extracted from the swelling and examined, DeMeglio said. Two hours later, the pair had their answer — Brutus did have lymphoma.
“My husband and I were absolutely devastated,” DeMeglio said. “He is so young and active; we just couldn’t wrap our minds around the idea that he had cancer.”
The veterinarian, Simmons said, only had statistics to provide because treating canine cancer is relatively new. Brutus had four to six weeks to live if the couple chose not to do cancer treatments.
With treatments, 50 percent of dogs live for a year and 25 percent live longer than one year, Simmons said. The couple’s biggest fear was that Brutus’ quality of life would drastically suffer during chemotherapy treatments, he added.
The veterinarian assured the pair that most dogs don’t realize they’re sick or even that they are receiving treatments, Simmons said.
Simmons, who works as a machinist at Mountain Precision Tool, and DeMeglio, a full-time student and orthodontic assistant, faced a difficult decision.
Emotionally, the couple knew their decision would be to have Brutus undergo chemotherapy treatments. But financially, they weren’t sure they could afford his treatments.
“We knew in our hearts that we had to give Brutus the best possible chance and that we would try every way possible to get him the care he needed,” Simmons said.
Soon after the decision had been made, Brutus began a 16‑week chemotherapy treatment plan.
During Brutus’ treatments, Simmons turned to the Internet to learn more about caring for dogs with cancer. That’s when he stumbled across a nonprofit group in New York called the Magic Bullet Fund, which helps fund canine cancer treatments for families that can’t otherwise afford it.
The couple decided to contact the nonprofit, which was founded by Laurie Kaplan after Bullet, her Siberian Husky, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000 at the age of 9.
Kaplan was working as an animal medical writer when Bullet was diagnosed, so she went the extra mile to research the disease and come up with the best way to treat her dog.
Bullet underwent chemotherapy treatments, like Brutus, and survived almost five years.
The experience led Kaplan to write the book “Help Your Dog Fight Cancer” and eventually establish the Magic Bullet Fund to help other dog owners in their struggle to finance expensive chemotherapy treatments.
“For a lot of people, it is way more than they are capable of doing,” Kaplan said. “It’s important because everyone who has a dog with cancer should be able to get treatment for that dog if it’s available.”
Canine cancer treatments range between $600 and $6,000 for each dog, depending on the treatment, according to the Magic Bullet Fund’s website. That’s a large, unexpected expense for many families.
“If you can put yourself in the shoes of someone in that situation, it’s a horrifying choice to make,” Kaplan said. “To say ‘My dog can’t have a shot to beat cancer because I don’t have the funds’ is awful.”
To receive help from the fund, the couple had to fill out an application and send in financial information. A caseworker would then contact the treating veterinarian to inquire about medical information and receive a cost estimate for treatments.
A review board then looks over the information provided and makes a decision based on which dogs have the best chance of survival and which families are in the most financial distress.
The couple was approved about halfway through Brutus’ treatments, which will total about $6,000. The couple is responsible for treatment costs prior to acceptance.
Now, the Magic Bullet Fund is helping the couple raise $2,900, roughly half of Brutus’ total medical expenses before Sunday. As of Tuesday, $2,625 had been donated to the Magic Bullet Fund for Brutus.
Kaplan said all donated money is allocated to the veterinarian to pay for the actual treatments the dogs are receiving.
In 2012, PetCo Foundation gave a $50,000 grant to the Magic Bullet Fund, giving every dog, including Brutus, a $500 head start on fundraising.
If donations are unable to be used by a specific dog because treatments end earlier than expected or the dog passes away, the donations are put into a general fund to help other dogs, Kaplan added.
Kaplan estimated the average amount raised for each dog ranges from $1,500 to $1,800.
Families are expected to do their part to help with fundraising by calling friends and family members for support, she added. The Magic Bullet Fund, Kaplan said, also has an extensive list of sponsors.
Even though Brutus’ treatments are expensive, DeMeglio said she is thankful to have him around because of the joy he brings and the smiles he puts on her family’s faces each day.
“Any dog lover knows that the unconditional love that dogs give their owners is a beautiful thing worth fighting for,” DeMeglio said.
“I hope Brutus gets as many happy days as he can possibly get out of life.”
Brutus is currently in the ninth week of his 16-week chemotherapy treatment, which will end in May.
Even during his treatment, DeMeglio said he is running and playing just like he normally would.
Now, Brutus’ future looks a little brighter, and there’s hope for the couple.
“This experience has opened my eyes to the beauty of a selfless act and has actually made me take the time to notice others who are in need,” DeMeglio said.
“I know that sometimes it seems pointless to make a donation when you cannot afford much, but honestly every dollar makes a difference.”
To donate to Brutus’ medical expenses, visit the Magic Bullet Fund’s website before Sunday.
The Roanoke Times | 381-8627