Stetson won her heart from the start. Sara Lee was a Marine Crew Chief who had recently endured a painful breakup and was looking for love.
She found it that day at a small animal rescue farm in Godley, TX. “Stetson was the bounciest puppy you’ve ever seen. He came bounding up to me away from his siblings and licked me straight in the face,” Lee remembered.
Lee grew up with dogs, so she was excited to adopt her first dog as an adult. Stetson and Lee quickly became best friends. He stayed by her side constantly.
When Lee deployed, she was heartbroken to leave him, but the pair didn’t miss a beat when she returned, and things went back to ‘normal’ for a while.
Two years later – Sara has gotten out of the Marines and gone on to culinary school. She met her now-husband Joseph Lee, a Lieutenant in the Air Force. The pair quickly hit it off – thanks to shared interests: music, God, dogs, their country, and the outdoors.
One thing led to another and, on the eve of their engagement, they decided to adopt another dog. “We found Cheyenne at a shelter outside of Houston, she was the biggest of her litter and was already the lanky, awkward, happy girl we love today,” Sara Lee remembered.
The minute the couple brought her home, she pounced on Stetson. “I was terrified at first, I thought they were fighting,” Sara said, “I’ve never seen Stetson play that hard with another dog.” Three hours later they were still at it, jumping, running, barking, play-fighting – it was an instant connection. “They have been inseparable ever since.”
In 2022, The Lees received Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders to Eglin Air Force Base. The family got orders to move in October.
Sara had to finish up work in Kansas, the Lee’s previous duty station, before she could join the rest of the family in Florida. Before Joseph and the Lee’s dogs moved down, Sara noticed Stetson had a lump on his jaw. Sara didn’t think much of it, because he’d had other issues which went away on their own.
Around the same time, Joseph noticed a mass on Cheyenne.
The couple unpacked in their new home and made appointments for Stetson to see the vet in December when Sara made it down to Niceville.
Stetson was the first to see the vet. “It was New Year’s Eve and I got a call from the vet,” Sara remembers, “‘It’s lymphoma,’” the veterinarian on the other end of the phone told her. Lymphoma is a type of cancer that occurs in both humans and dogs. According to the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine, the cause for lymphoma in is unknown in animals. Researchers hypothesize the disease can be caused by everything from bacteria to chemical exposure and interaction with magnetic fields. Lymphoma is considered incurable in dogs, and lifespans for dogs diagnosed with lymphoma is 1-2 months, according to a network of veterinary hospitals.
“We were absolutely gutted,” Sara remembered. They immediately made an appointment for Cheyenne to see the vet.
A second cancer diagnosis. This time a Mast cell tumor. Mast cell tumors form on tissues in the body, called mass cells, which are primarily responsible for reactions to allergies like watery eyes.
Stetson has the more aggressive cancer. The Lees spent most free time researching the cancer and any Hail Mary options they might be able to use to save him. One treatment stood out to them – a bone marrow transplant. “There are only two clinics in the nation which offer it,” Lee said, “ One in Washington State and another at North Carolina State University. A bone marrow transplant has approximately a 90% cure rate with an allogeneic donor,” Sara Lee said.
An allogeneic transplant is a procedure where a patient, human or dog, receives stem cells from a donor to replace their own stem cells that have been destroyed by treatment with radiation or high doses of chemotherapy.
The only problem is that the cost of the surgery for Stetson is a whopping $35,000. “Some people have asked if our dogs are worth it,” Sara Lee said, “The answer is an emphatic and unequivocal yes.”
The Lee’s other dog’s prognosis now sits in limbo. The veterinarian scheduled Cheyenne’s tumor-removal surgery. The medical team and the Lees won’t know how life-threatening the cancer is until the biopsy from the tumor returns post-surgery.
Despite their dogs’ heartbreaking diagnosis, Joseph and Sara remain hopeful. “They changed our lives. We’re on a quest to save theirs,” Sara Lee said. The couple started a fundraiser to cover the treatment costs for the dogs. “We hope this campaign [to save their dogs] will also bring awareness to the costs associated with canine cancer treatment.”
People interested in supporting the Lees goal to raise enough money for treatment can visit Fcaninecancer.com, shopping on the couple’s Etsy shop PetsarePeople or donating to their Go Fund Me.
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