Cancer in Pets

August 26, 2010

When your pet gets a diagnosis of cancer, it can be really scary. And, often, it does mean the beginning of the end of your pet’s life. However, many cancers, especially if found early, are quite treatable. Notice that I didn’t say “curable”. Cancer in pets is usually a disease that is treated in some fashion for the rest of the pet’s life, much like diabetes or heart failure. And, in fact, many cancers are more responsive to treatment than are diseases like diabetes or heart failure, so it doesn’t have to be an immediate death sentence unless it has already spread dramatically.

So, the first thing you have to do when you hear your veterinarian use the word cancer, is to try to dispel you fears. I myself was diagnosed with a horrible disease when I was 30. I found that I got over the fear once I started to educate myself about the disease. I did this by talking to family, friends, doctors and by reading a lot. If your pet gets the diagnosis of cancer, you need to do the same, so that you can make rational and compassionate decisions about your pet’s future.

What is cancer? By definition, it is “a tissue mass that is characterized by persistent, excessive and disorganized cell growth that is unresponsive to normal control mechanisms” (Mason, Portland Veterinary Specialists) In short, it is the uncontrolled growth of an abnormal cell. Tumor simply means “a swelling”. Some tumors are cancerous and some are not. And, some cancers are benign, meaning they don’t spread to other body organs, but even these can do damage by compressing other tissues around them as they grow. Malignant tumors invade locally and/or spread to other organs like lungs or liver. Metastasis is the process by which a tumor spreads.

Cancer treatments include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. You, your veterinarian, and maybe even a veterinary oncologist will help you determine what treatments make the most sense for your pet. Surgery is a good option for solitary tumors, but depending on how malignant they are, chemotherapy or radiation my be suggested as a secondary measure to ward off development of tumors elsewhere in the body. Radiation is helpful to shrink tumors that we cannot reach surgically. I good example of this would be a tumor of the nasal cavity. A current patient of mine just went through a short course of radiation that shrunk her nasal tumor enough that she felt much better for 4 months. Chemotherapy is the best option for any tumors that might spread rapidly or which have already spread to the lungs, liver or elsewhere.

As you are deciding how to proceed with your pet’s cancer several things must be considered by you and your veterinarian. Is your pet strong enough to handle aggressive therapies? Does he love the attention of going to the vet or does he freak out and hide for days after a trip to the vet? Any complicating diseases like heart disease, liver disease, debilitating arthritis and kidney disease can make cancer hard to treat. Overall you have to decide what his or her quality of life will be like during treatment and after remission is achieved.

The most important thing for you to consider when you are deciding whether and how to treat cancer in your pet is that cancer treatment in dogs and cats is dramatically different than cancer treatment in humans. Although we use the same modalities of therapy, our goals are very different. A veterinarian’s goal is to make your pet feel better for some period of time. A human oncologist’s goal, especially early in a cancer diagnosis is to cure the cancer or achieve a very long remission. This is done at all cost, even if it makes the patient very sick with radiation or drugs. We just don’t do that with dogs and cats. By taking into account that pets only live 10-14 years, gaining six months to 2 years of good quality of life, when the pet can go on his walks and jump on the bed, is really all we need to achieve. So, when we start a chemotherapy protocol with your pet, if it starts to make him or her feel sick, we will back off on the doses. The idea is to make him or her feel BETTER!

My 13 year old Bo-The-Dog was diagnosed with bladder cancer years ago. My partner and I tried to remove the tumor in the bladder, but too much of the bladder was affected. We removed what we could and started him on chemotherapy. In my dog’s case, he felt better than ever while on his chemo. He got to come to work with Mom once w week where he got is IV injections and the rest of the drugs were pills that I gave at home. Some of the drugs in his chemotherapy protocol happened to be strong painkillers, so he was arthritic-free for the first time in months. So, in my dog’s case, he felt better than ever! Eventually, though, the tumor became resistant to the drugs and returned. This is when I had to admit defeat and put him to sleep. A very sad day for sure, but I got an extra 6 months with him that I would not have had without chemotherapy. During that 6 months he walked on the beach everyday, just like he always had. I wouldn’t trade those 6 months for the world. And, in the last decade, chemotherapy has improved dramatically, so today my dog would probably have lived a full year. Dogs and cats with lymphoma are now living an average of 1 year after diagnosis if they are receiving chemotherapy. And, that is an average, so that means that many pets live up to 2 years with their chemotherapy.

So, my point is, don’t rule out cancer treatment based on your experiences with people losing their hair (for the most part, dogs don’t lose their hair), feeling deathly ill and needing blood transfusions to get through their chemotherapy. Cancer treatment can be expensive, but in pets,  it isn’t the nightmare that you might be imagining.

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