Labrador retriever beats odds, remains cancer-free after treatment for deadly disease at UF

By Sarah Carey

Riley and Phlash

Riley loves playing with his Jack Russell buddy, Phlash. (Photo courtesy of Michael Pasternak)

A 13-year-old black lab named Riley secured his lucky-dog status early in life when he survived a devastating outbreak of parvo in his litter. He went on to perform in agility competitions, traveling the country with his owners, becoming a therapy dog, comforting sick children and even helping them learn to read.

But in 2017, when Michael and Sherrilyn Pasternak of Gainesville found their beloved Riley lying in the kitchen, unable to get up, their veterinarian quickly referred him to UF’s Small Animal Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a deadly cancer known as splenic hemangiosarcoma. Given the disease’s dire prognosis, the couple thought Riley’s luck might have run out.

“They removed his spleen, and told us he had this awful cancer that couldn’t be worse in dogs,” said Michael Pasternak, a retired hosiery entrepreneur and college professor. “They said he might go one-to-three months without chemotherapy, or five-to-six months with it.”

Pasternak said he’d never forget those words.

“We figured what the heck, we gave him the chemo, and it became a thing of going back to the oncology team every three months, where they’d do the blood work, ultrasound and X-rays,” Pasternak said. “This continued, and once we hit a year, the doctors began to use words like ‘miracle’ to describe his case.”

One year became several, and it became clear that Riley had defeated the odds once again. Four years after his diagnosis, Riley remains cancer-free.

“With a median survival time of four to six months for splenic hemangiosarcoma, it’s so gratifying that Riley has lived happily and with no disease reoccurrence for four years,” said Sandra Bechtel, D.V.M., an associate professor of oncology and one of several veterinary oncology specialists who have treated Riley at UF over the years.

“He’s still chasing balls at the dog park and still very protective of his little pal, Phlash, our Jack Russell terrier,” Pasternak said.

In the past year, Pasternak’s focus has turned to the health of his wife, Sherrilyn, also a former college professor, as she undergoes treatment for brain cancer. Because of her treatment, the couple missed Riley’s regular checkup last spring.

“We then said, ‘why are we doing this?’ We’ve never heard of another dog that has lived this long after having this disease. He’s in the record books,” Pasternak said. The couple decided they would discontinue Riley’s UF checkups and resume taking him to their local veterinarian twice a year.

At his age, the couple resolved that Riley should have, well — “the life of Riley,” an expression used to refer to people who live a life of great ease and comfort.

“This dog does not have a white whisker on his face,” Pasternak said. “Riley just lays next to Sherrilyn after her treatments and makes her life so much nicer.”

Splenic hemangiosarcoma is a common, malignant and highly aggressive tumor of the spleen that most frequently affects dogs 8 years old and older. While the cause of the disease is unknown, it appears to be diagnosed most frequently in Labrador retrievers, like Riley, along with golden retrievers and German shepherds.

“We’re so grateful to the veterinarians at UF for all they did for Riley, and for us,” Pasternak said. “We felt it was important to share Riley’s story to give hope to families that might be faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. Riley’s story is proof that miracles can happen.”

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November-December 2021

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