My Canine Cancer Journey - A Journey of Hope

Through sadness, there is hope.  Always.


My name is Lisa Olver.  I am not a doctor, nor a scientist.  I am a pet parent who embarked on a journey that changed my life forever. I am humbled and grateful for the people who were put in my path during this journey.  They gave their time, their resources and advice but most of all, they truly loved Sommer and lived her milestones in beating Lymphoma with us.  Fourteen months that we would have never had if it weren’t for stepping out of the box and trying something different. This is her story...


The signs were subtle.  Our golden retriever, Sommer, started sleeping a lot.  We didn’t think much of it as the vet would say at her checkups, “She’s 8 years old and is now considered a senior.”  Until one day, the groomer told me she had a knot on her neck and that I should probably get it checked out.  To the vet we went and were given antibiotics and told to come back in a week for a recheck.  We did and this time, he got my attention when he suggested we test her for Lymphoma.  What?  Not the “C” word! She is only eight years old!  The breeder assured us she would live at least twelve to fourteen years! Three days later, the labs came back.  I remember where I was and as the words came over the phone, “Sommer has T-Cell Lymphoma,” I felt like I had been hit by a truck.  Fighting back the ocean of tears that were welling up inside, I knew I needed to get more information.  What can we do?  How long if we don’t do anything?  I was totally unprepared for the vets’ response. “She may have 30 days.  I would have a party, take lots of pictures and let her eat whatever she wants.”  I can remember those words like they were said yesterday.  The vet further went on to say that we could begin chemotherapy immediately. 


I was crushed.  My family was crushed.  After much discussion, we decided we were not going to put Sommer through chemo and the reasons were many.  I decided to take her to Dr. Marjorie Lewter, a holistic veterinarian here in Blacksburg for hospice guidelines.  What I walked out with were guidelines and a tiny sticky note that Dr. Lewter put in my hand and said, “You might want to check this out.  It is just making its way into the holistic world and you might be interested.”  Those three words, Dog Cancer Series were game changers.


I got home and went straight to the computer and typed in  What followed made my jaw drop.  Rodney Habib, a pet parent, and Dr. Karen Becker, a wellness veterinarian came together and produced a series on canine cancer.   Rodney Habib’s journey started much like mine.  His beloved dog, Sam got cancer. He, too, was told to enjoy the time he had left and it would be over soon.  I attach a link that tells his story and how he began his search for information not realizing that it would lead him to produce a video series.  It gave me hope and courage to step outside of my comfort zone and seek answers so that I, too, could save Sommer. I think this video short is important to include in my story as this series became the basis for our protocol.


The New World of Understanding Canine Cancer


There was so much information to digest but I knew that time was not on my side.  I did take the quiz on what kind of lifestyle/environment Sommer had exposure to that would have put her at risk to develop cancer. We didn’t score so well.


And I went on to learn that:

  • Life expectancy in dogs is going down. Not up.
  • In 1973, one of every ten dogs got cancer. Today, one in every two dogs and cats will get cancer.
  • Canine and feline cancer is now considered an EPIDEMIC.
  • Puppies as young as 13 weeks are showing up with cancer!



What in the world is going on?  Lifestyle and exposure.  It is estimated that 10 percent of all dog cancers are genetic and 90 percent are caused by our dog’s lifestyle and exposure.  What are we talking about?


  • Pollution
  • Water treated with chlorine creating chlorinated organic compounds
  • Chemically treated fabrics
  • Household chemicals
  • Smoke
  • Beautiful yards treated with chemicals and herbicides
  • Overbreeding
  • Over-vaccination
  • Spaying and neutering too early
  • Flea and Tick Prevention
  • Many dog food treats tainted with chemicals. Watch how rawhide is made.
  • Dog Food - high in carbohydrates and fillers



Dog Food: The 30 Billion Dollar a Year Industry


It is a sobering thought to think that all of these well-meaning things we do for our dogs combine to set them up for the perfect storm!  CANCER!


Dog Food? I fed Sommer a dried kibble recommended by the breeder never questioning its nutritional value.  In this journey, I learned that dogs really have no nutritional need for carbohydrates.  So why is dog food so full of carbohydrates?  In two words?  CHEAP!  CONVENIENT!   Isn’t that a winning combination for the pet food companies and the pet parent?  You bettcha!  But, what about our dogs?  How do they win?  I can remember all the times I dutifully went to purchase kibble for Sommer, thinking she was getting everything she needed, nutritionally.


Fact:  Dog food can be made very cheaply with carbohydrate laden fillers.  The average dried dog food (kibble) is 40-70 percent carbohydrates and companies are NOT required to list the amount of carbohydrates on the dog food label.  That job is left to the pet parent like me to find out that answer.  I fed Sommer dried kibble so in this case, you add 4 ingredients together to get total carbohydrates.  Protein+Fat+Moisture+Ash and subtract from 100.  Sommer’s food was 53% carbohydrates!  Carbohydrates turn to glucose.  SUGAR! 


What happens in the Body?

A Super Brief Biology Refresher- Remember Those Mitochondria?


Well, those mitochondria (ours and our pets) are the first line of defense.  They get hit first with inflammation from exposure/lifestyle which triggers a sequence of events in the cells that set up the perfect environment for cancer.  A REALLY BIG NEED FOR SUGAR!  A CANCER CELL MUST HAVE 200 TIMES MORE GLUCOSE THAN A NORMAL CELL TO METASTASIZE. Glucose is cancer’s fuel.


So let me get this straight.  Sommer ate 3 cups of dried kibble per day.  That was equal to getting 1.5 cups of sugar a day!!!  Combine that with the other exposure and lifestyle factors above over time and you see where I’m going with all of this.


Time was not on my side. 


I spent hours reading and watching experts in canine cancer share another option in treating canine cancer that changed my mindset on what approach to take.  I learned that many cancers could be stopped or rather, “starved” by putting a dog on a ketogenic diet.  Simply put, a ketogenic diet uses ketones produced by the liver for energy instead of glucose (carbohydrates).  Ketosis occurs when we fast or restrict calories to include carbohydrates while eating a high fat diet with moderate amounts of protein.  When that happens, the only alternative energy source is ketones.  Ketosis was a normal occurrence for our pet and human ancestors.  So, I needed to starve this cancer.  But, how?  Where could I start?


Ketopet Sanctuary


I quickly learned that the canine keto world was small but it was growing fast and in the forefront of success stories is an organization called Ketopet Sanctuary.  They took in dogs with cancer that were up for adoption and treated them with therapies that included a ketogenic diet.  I immediately went to their website and signed up for their e-book that would help me create a ketogenic diet for Sommer.  I needed to move fast if I was going to starve this cancer.  Everything Dr. Becker and Rodney Habib explained made perfect sense.  I had nothing to lose so I went for it.  I purchased their Dog Cancer Series videos and took lots of notes.  Sommer was diagnosed with Lymphoma on March 2, 2018.  She had her first ketogenic meal on March 13th.


And so we wait...Each morning I would wake up wondering would it be better, the same or worse?  That was the reality and there was no accurate way to know if Sommer was in ketosis unless I purchased a blood glucose and ketone meter to monitor her glucose and ketones.  I did just that.  It took her about a week to get into ketosis.


The New World of Keto Food Stars


When I look back to preparing Sommer’s food, I do laugh when I think about me in the kitchen trying to measure things right down to the grams.  What was this new world of grass fed butter, MCT Oil, raw eggs, ground beef, Ghee, Coconut Oil, Heavy Whipping Cream and sardines in olive oil?  What dog wouldn’t love these things?  Some folks have a hard time transitioning their dogs to a keto diet but we did not.  Sommer dove right in.  Perhaps it was a sign of things to come.


I know I am fortunate that it all fell into place so easily but it was overwhelming trying to keep up with the requirements of her diet.  My kitchen looked like a production line.  Then I figured a few things out.  I could freeze the base of her meals and add the rest of the ingredients easily as I made them.  Of course, all that changed when I discovered that a ketogenic dog food had recently been developed for the pets at Ketopet Sanctuary to help save time producing meals for 60 pups twice a day!  This was all so new but I decided to give Visionary Pet Food (formerly Valiant Pet Nutrition) a try.  It could make such a difference in saving me time with one dog!  I had some questions about feeding requirements at the time so I decided to dial up the phone number on the website.  Little did I know, I would speak directly with the Founder and CEO, Paul Raybould who spent time with this pet parent in distress and not only did he answer my questions, he made himself available by email or phone if I needed help.  Let me go back for a minute to reflect on how much this truly meant to me.  I never gave myself time to think about what I was undertaking.  I was desperately trying to save a family member.  It WAS a matter of life or death and we were pioneers.  In other words, talk about feeling like you are on an island alone, aside from our veterinarian, Dr. Lewter, we were forging new territory.  I was so grateful to be able to have another person take interest and become a partner in our journey and Paul was that person who joined our circle.

Within two weeks of being in ketosis, Sommer’s energy levels were noticeably higher.  She was alert and not sleeping all day like she had been.  We took long walks, rain or shine.  I knew something was changing when we had a freak snowstorm a little over three weeks into her ketosis.  We woke up to about 6 inches of snow on the ground. I opened the door and Sommer ran out like she was going to conquer the world! I could not believe her energy.  And of course I took pictures.


One month after being diagnosed, Sommer was a completely different dog.  It was as though the fog had lifted.  She was energetic, engaged, barking at all the dogs that would go by, playing fetch and just full of life.



Every two weeks, we went in for checkups.  The numbers were solid.   Dr. Lewter had Sommer on supplements and Chinese herbs.  Sommer had the energy of a puppy.  One of the things I did with her as a puppy was to let her chase the vacuum cleaner as I vacuumed and she would take the nozzle off and run to the door. That had all stopped a year before she was diagnosed with Lymphoma.  To my surprise one morning, she rushed into the kitchen when she heard the vacuum cleaner sound and started chasing it again!  Her 9th birthday would be April 30, 2018.  Would she be here?


She absolutely would!  Two months, four months (July) six months (September) Thanksgiving, Christmas.  These were big milestones and we counted our blessings daily.




And it was, until Sommer walked up to her food at the end of February and decided she wasn’t hungry.  It became a pattern that developed quickly.  I took her in for a blood test and her liver enzymes came back elevated.  All other systems were good. She was still in ketosis, she was energetic and we continued to monitor her.  Her appetite took a nose dive in mid-April so we took her off the ketogenic diet.  It became an issue of just getting her to eat.  Subsequent tests didn’t show anything out of the ordinary but she progressively got worse.  At the end of April, we realized we were losing her but there was nothing we could do.  She let us know when she had enough and we walked her down that final path on May 2nd, 2019, two days after her tenth birthday. We let our beautiful Sommer go 14 months to the day after she was diagnosed with cancer.  This is the toughest part of writing her story but NOT one I want to emphasize in this journey.


Because I had kept such a detailed written protocol of what went into Sommer’s care during these 14 months, I felt it was important to know what caused her to die.  Having felt this nudge to write her story for many months prior when things were going well, I needed to share the outcome, no matter what it might hold.  We sent liver tissue samples to the state pathology lab and they considered the case so unusual, they enlisted the help of another pathologist from our veterinary college here in Virginia. The pathology report conclusion: chronic hepatic fibrosing of the liver likely caused by exposure to a toxin.  Her commercial keto diet was declared safe.

We could have taken these tests to the next level to try for a more definitive answer but it would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack and in the end, it wouldn't bring her back. I believe some things are just not meant to be known and perhaps, for a reason.  This is what I do know. There were NO SIGNS OF LYMPHOMA OR CANCER CELLS PRESENT IN HER LIVER!  That’s right!  Sommer gave cancer a swift kick in the rear!  We had 14 incredible months that would have never occurred had we not traveled this path. I cannot emphasize these words enough: VICTORY!  HOPE!  No trips for chemo or radiation.  Just pure quality of life and oh, how she thrived!  Any and all who walked past our driveway had better acknowledge Sommer as she would let them know she was always available for visits and love.  Our neighbor coined it best, “Everybody Loves Sommer.”  Even neighbors who moved into other neighborhoods would come back to visit her.  Sommer had an army of people who loved her.  As for our family, we were her humans and she taught us so many life lessons.  Courage, never give up and always, always, love unconditionally.  She led and guided us in this journey and we were simply along for the ride.


I believe the “holistic treatment” train has left the station and perhaps one day, traditional veterinary medicine will embrace this approach as a viable option to include in treatment protocol for canine cancer.


Sommer’s Team


During our journey, there were people who came into our path and made such a difference in the success of Sommer’s journey.  This story can’t end without acknowledging these people and the role they played in our lives.

I call it divine intervention.  Her groomer, Sarah, at Pampered Pets in Blacksburg found the knot on her neck.  Her veterinarian, Dr. Marjorie Lewter at Holistic Veterinary Consultants steered me to Dog Cancer Series.  In our many visits to her practice, she and her staff (Amber and Mary) became our mentors, cheerleaders and extended family.  Their compassion and love for Sommer was endless.  Michelle, Jenny, Anna Kate and Heather were Sommer’s pet sitters for most of her life and they loved her deeply.  I had an open line to Dr. Teri Swanson, D.V.M in Texas, formerly of Ketopet Sanctuary.  Teri shared what she knew about the therapies they had successfully treated their dogs with in addition to the ketogenic diet which showed enormous promise.  She told me that Lymphoma was the one cancer that responded well to a ketogenic diet alone.


This combination of people and the things I learned along the way compelled me to write Sommer’s story because it is a story of hope. And, if that can make a difference for even one pet family going forward, then Sommer’s legacy will live on.

The End

           Ketogenic Guide for Developing a Canine Keto Diet


"A Pet Parent's Guide to the Ketogenic Diet" from Ketopet Sanctuary was invaluable to me in setting up Sommer’s ketogenic diet.  You can download the eBook here:

I encourage any pet parent to check out this website;  They provide a wealth of information.


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