URBANA, Ill. | There are few things more grim for a dog than prostate cancer.
And when a little scrap of a dog named Bear was diagnosed with this disease in November 2010, nobody figured he'd live longer than six to nine months.
But Bear just wasn't ready to go that soon.
And his owners, Lisa and Tim Kappert, of Mascoutah, Ill., have been all too willing to help him hang on to life.
Eighteen months later, Bear is still playing with his toys, eating and eager to go to the park every day, Lisa Kappert says.
"He loves life, and he keeps going," she says.
A 13-year-old Shih Tzu, Bear has become a special patient at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. And while he's still considered terminally ill, he has amazed his caregivers.
"I think he has nine lives," says Dr. Joanna Schmit, the oncology resident overseeing his care.
Prostate cancer is uncommon among dogs, and when they're diagnosed with it, the outcome is never hopeful. It can be treated for a time, but never cured, Schmit says.
Because dogs can't tell people they're feeling bad, the tumor usually is found too late, she said. About 75 percent of the time, it already has spread by the time the dog is diagnosed, and at that point, a dog has just weeks or months left.
Bear was given a longer prognosis because he didn't have any sign of initial spread, Schmit said.
He did so well with cancer treatments, it was about a year before the cancer recurred, and doctors were ready to move on to the next phase of treatment, she said.
Most people never undertake that next phase of treatment for their dogs, but the Kapperts aren't like most people when it comes to their dog, Schmit says. They've done everything they can for Bear, a dog she describes as happy and "super sweet."
"They're the kind of owners that are amazing," she said. "They have his best interest at heart."
Kappert said she and her husband have had Bear since he was 6 weeks old, and he's the last remaining dog of four they once had.
"He's such a great dog," she says. "He's a people dog. He loves people. He never met a stranger. He loves everybody."
Every day, no matter what the weather, the Kapperts take Bear to the park because he loves it so much, Lisa Kappert says. He's still easily managing a quarter-mile walk a day.
"He'd go farther if you let him," Tim Kappert says.
He rides with the couple in the car. He's got a pile of stuffed toys he likes to play with, and he's got a yen for junk food like chips and popcorn that Lisa Kappert said she and her husband are indulging.
"He just loves life," Tim Kappert says.
The Kapperts wound up driving a long way for Bear's care after choosing the UI College of Veterinary Medicine for a second opinion, Lisa Kappert says.
Their own vet had initially given Bear a prognosis of just a few weeks to live and advised them to just let him go, she said.
Schmit says Bear underwent both traditional chemotherapy and nontraditional chemotherapy, plus radiation. Then he underwent a procedure with Dr. Heidi Phillips, who had just joined the UI staff bringing experience in complex ureteral surgery.
Phillips remembers Schmit approaching her about Bear.
"He was about at the end of what they could do for him, medically," she said.
But there was something Phillips could do: She removed Bear's right kidney, which had been destroyed by the tumor, and took steps to keep his left kidney functioning. She relocated his ureter (the tube that leads from the kidney to the bladder) to the forward part of the bladder, and then inserted a tube that the Kapperts will need to help him during his final days.
Phillips writes: "What made Bear's surgery especially complex was how much of his bladder was taken over by the cancer. It left me very little room to re-implant the ureter, and to also create a 'tube cystotomy,' a route of evacuation through his body wall through which his owners can remove urine, should Bear become unable to pass urine through his urethra in the future."
Phillips says Bear may even have several more months ahead.
"But the good news is, it's good quality time," she adds. "And for the owners, that was worth it. They weren't ready to say goodbye."
The Kapperts say they've been lucky to be able to afford treatments for Bear and it's important to them to pursue treatment, not only for Bear's sake but for other dogs who might benefit from what is being learned through Bear's care at the UI teaching hospital.
The Kapperts also say they're not kidding themselves about what's in store for Bear, and they won't subject him to an extended life in pain. But so far he hasn't reached that point.
"He's bounced back after everything," Lisa Kappert says. "Since he's been diagnosed, this dog has defied all the odds. We'll just take it as it comes and keep going."