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BRAVE HEART; HORSE SURVIVES RADICAL TREATMENT FOR CANCER.

Byline: Paul O'Donoghue Staff Writer

First he survived an attack by mountain lions. Then there were several bouts with deadly cancers fought with an experimental form of chemotherapy and surgery that left wounds big enough to swallow his owner's arm.

He is Tut, the horse whose Arabic name means brave and courageous, but who maybe should have been called Lucky.

``I love him very much,'' says owner Sharon Virzi, as Tut nuzzled her in between bites of alfalfa grass at his shady paddock on Happy Camp Road just north of Moorpark.

It was early in 1997 when Virzi first noticed the two growths on either side of the horse's sheath.

They started to grow, and soon were as big as golfballs.

On the advice of a friend she brought Tut to Buellton, near Solvang, to see Charles Boles and David Jensen, two veterinary doctors who specialize in treating horses.

The doctors determined Tut's cancers were a type called sarcoids, one as big as a softball and the other the size of a tennis ball.

``This horse had multiple tumors around the sheath and several ones under the tail and without a doubt had the most serious and extensive case of sarcoids I'd seen,'' Jensen said. ``And when I first saw this, I thought, did I really want to try? It was so daunting. We had never tried to tackle ones this big before.''

But encouraged by Virzi's obvious attachment to Tut, the vets decided to try a series of operations, using a chemotherapy system developed only a few years earlier by Alain Theon, a veterinary medicine professor at the University of California, Davis.

The operations consisted of cutting out the cancers and injecting the surrounding tissue in a grid pattern with a cocktail consisting of a chemical called Cistoplatin mixed with sesame oil, Jensen said.

Using the Cistoplatin cocktail avoided potential damage to sensitive organs such as the liver that might be affected by an orally administered medicine, Jensen said.

Because the treatment had to be repeated three or four times at two-week intervals, Tut had to stay in Buellton for four months, isolated because the chemical was potentially hazardous.

Virzi visited Tut regularly, bringing him carrots and other favorite treats and reading Horse Illustrated and Equus to him.

Each time she had to leave him, she felt as depressed as he appeared to be.

``I didn't want to leave,'' said Virzi, who works in a pharmacy in Simi Valley. ``He was so depressed, with his ears flopping.''

After each operation, the vets left Tut's wounds open so they could heal naturally, swabbing the tissue daily, which grew back fast. But the wounds were huge, Virzi said.

``I could put my arm up to my elbow and feel nothing inside,'' she said.

After much time and nearly $8,000 invested in treatment, the Arab gelding began to recover, as indicated by a revival of his sense of humor and mischief.

``They put up with so much from him,'' Virzi said. ``He pulled out all the flowers and then proceeded to rip out the irrigation system. He owes his life to them.''

It's been a long journey for the horse who once fought off local mountain lions in Happy Camp Park, just up the road from Virzi's home.

Tut didn't panic, but just edged sideways to avoid the one big cat beneath his feet, then ran off to a local ranch where a resident helped scare the lions off.

That experience helped Virzi to appreciate Tut even more.

Virzi's husband, Mike Virzi, marvels at the bond she has with Tut and their other horse, Sabok.

``She loves them,'' said Mike, with a laugh. ``It's OK with me. It's maybe 10 o'clock at night when she decides they need a blanket on them.''

Since then, Tut has had a few follow-up operations to remove smaller cancers, the last being about a year ago. He seems to be doing well, Virzi said.

His recovery inspired her recently to ride the horse in a 10-mile route with other equestrians to raise money for children with cancer.

``I thought maybe God did this for a reason, that he helped Tut so much that we could help the children,'' Virzi said.

But some pulled muscles have stopped her from riding the horse lately, not that Tut seems to mind. He munches hay and lifts his head, ears perked up, when he hears his name.

``He's great, he's blooming,'' Virzi said. ``And now he's so fat, he's obese.''

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo: (color) Sharon Virzi shares a quiet moment with her horse Tut, who has survived several bouts with cancer thanks to chemotherapy and surgery.

Lilly Barrett/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 6, 1999
Words:785
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