Pioneer Press: Chemotherapy saves Apple Valley man’s loving companion — his golden retriever

Posted:   02/15/2013 03:21:20 PM
When Mike Stepanek’s golden retriever died after getting hit by a car in 2005, he grieved for seven months before opening his heart again.

When he did, in 2006, it was to another golden retriever. Of course.

“My dad is a vet, and I’d grown up around goldens,” says Stepanek, 34, of Apple Valley. “We hunt and fish, so my dad always had them. We usually had two or three around.”

Stepanek named his own golden retriever after a favorite family place.

“Our cabin is in northern Wisconsin, in Cable, so we fish on Lake Superior quite a bit,” Stepanek says. “She’s named after Madeline Island, because we fish between Madeline Island and Long Island.”

Man and dog quickly grew close.

“She’s such a loving dog,” Stepanek says. “Everywhere I go, she follows me.”

Maddie was also there as Stepanek’s family grew to include his wife, Diana, and their daughter, Teagan, now 3.

Shortly before Maddie turned 5 in January 2011, it was the family’s turn to be there for her.

“She wasn’t eating anything, not a thing that we offered her,” Stepanek says. “She was just eating snow, and she was losing weight.”

Stepanek asked his dad, Eau Claire veterinarian Jeff Stepanek, to give Maddie a checkup.

“My dad offered her cat food, and he was encouraged when she ate it,” Stepanek said. “But he did feel a lump on her lymph node. He thought maybe it was an infection, but the biopsy confirmed that it was lymphoma.”

Golden retrievers are at higher risk for lymphoma, but

in today’s world of increasingly sophisticated pet care, Stepanek learned his dog’s diagnosis of stage IV cancer wasn’t an automatic death sentence. His dad referred him to BluePearl Veterinary Partners, the “Mayo Clinic” for animals, where Maddie had her own veterinary oncologist.

“I already lost one dog too young, I wasn’t going to lose another one,” Stepanek says.

“When Diana and I discussed it with my parents, there was no hesitation or questions to be asked. She was going to get chemo so we could keep her around as long as possible.”

The treatment took several months.

“I dropped her off for the day at the Eden Prairie location every other week for four or five months for her chemo,” Stepanek says. “Then, in between, she’d go in for her blood work.”

Chemotherapy is hard on dogs, just as it is for humans.

“It was tough — she was nauseous and lethargic,” Stepanek says. “She didn’t greet us at the door anymore.”

Later, that changed.

“It was a turning point for us when Maddie started coming to the door again when we came home from work,” Stepanek says.

Now more than two years after the diagnosis, the gift of Maddie’s continued presence in his family’s life is something that Stepanek doesn’t take for granted.

“I think I cherish her and appreciate her more for having gone through this,” Stepanek says.

Share your own “turning point” with Molly Guthrey at or 651-228-5505.