When the Diagnosis is Cancer

The month of May has been declared Pet Cancer Awareness Month. While I’m not altogether sure who determines such things, in honor of this declaration I present to you a good deal of information that I’m certain will be useful should your four-legged family member develop cancer.

Cancer, neoplasia, growth, tumor, malignancy, the big “C”: no matter which word is used, it is the diagnosis we all dread. It’s not that cancer is always associated with a terrible outcome. What is true, however, is that whenever cancer is diagnosed, it is inevitable that lives are going to change. And change such as this isn’t something we relish when it comes to our pets.

If your veterinarian suspects or knows that your pet has cancer, you will be asked to make a number of significant decisions.  Some of them may have to do with diagnostic testing and others will pertain to treatment options. Such decisions can be tough in the best of times. If you’ve just learned your dog or cat has cancer, these decisions can feel downright overwhelming. What can you do to regain some control over the situation? Here are some suggestions.

  • Ask your veterinarian how urgently your decisions must be made. An extra day or two can make a huge difference in terms of settling down emotionally and doing the research needed to deal with the decisions at hand.
  • Do your best to put away preconceived, inaccurate notions of what you imagine your pet’s experience will be like. People often get sick, develop profound fatigue, and lose their hair in response to cancer therapy. It is uncommon for dogs and cats to experience such side effects.
  • Read, “surf,” and ask lots of questions. The more you learn about your pet’s cancer, the more you will feel empowered to make good decisions on their behalf. When researching via the Internet, be sure to surf responsibly.  No sense wasting time on useless information.
  • Take things one step at a time.  Being asked to make decisions for your dog with cancer is akin to climbing a tall mountain. It’s strategically and psychologically important to break your ascent into small manageable increments (and there’s less likelihood of tripping and falling when your eyes are not glued to the summit). Similarly, it is easier when you focus your attention on the medical decisions at hand rather than those that may (or may not) arise later.
  • Follow your own heart. Steer clear of folks intent on convincing you that he is “just a dog” or “just a cat,” and that the appropriate treatment is to “put the poor thing out of his misery.” Likewise, avoid those people who think that all animals must be treated as aggressively as possible for anything and everything. Wear a thick skin around such “influential” people (maybe take a sabbatical from socializing with them). Surround yourself with people who are open-minded and are interested in supporting rather than influencing you. Remember, you know better than anyone else what is right for yourself and your best buddy.

Part two of this blog post (follows in one week) will focus on the treatment of canine and feline cancer and how to decide whether or not therapy makes sense for your pet.

Has one of your four-legged family members ever been diagnosed with cancer? How did you respond?

 

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

 

 

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16 Responses to “When the Diagnosis is Cancer”

  1. Kathleen Dillon says:

    Dear Dr. Nancy,

    You were at Animal Care Center and with Lisa Alexander saw our Golden Buddy ( age 7) when he was there for a biopsy and then the amputation of his hind leg. You were there running one of your final grief group sessions which I attended when he died of his osteosarcoma almost three years later. Buddy received his chemotherapy at UC Davis. Buddy was my “heart” dog whom I sorely miss to this day. I am writing to give courage to anyone whose best friend received a terrible cancer diagnosis like this one. The disease tormented me, but not him. His quality of life right up to the last days was 100%.

    Another story is my little calico cat who also had surgery at ACC and has been receiving chemo for lymphoma for about 15 months. She did well for 12 of those months, and now that we are probably in our final days with her, I think we made a bad judgment call by pursuing a second chemo drug when she came out of remission. I think one of the most difficult aspects of managing the care of an animal cancer patient is figuring out when it is wisest to stop treatment and help the animal go in peace. Our veterinary support system is world class, but even so this is an aspect of veterinary medicine that can be improved upon.

    Courage and all good wishes to all.

    Nancy, we miss you!

  2. Gracie says:

    My 11 year old chocolate Lab was just diagnosed with cancer. She was having very painful spasms in her back and an MRI revealed a mangioma on her spine. Her neurosurgeon suggested surgery and follow up chemo. This type of cancer does not metastasize elsewhere in the body, so the prognosis was pretty good. Even though he was pretty certain that the tumor would eventually return, the median survival rate post-op is 3-4 years. The surgery went well, although the tumor ended up being a little more aggressive in its makeup, as it was actually found to be adhered to her spine rather than just sitting next to it. It had to be peeled off, which make a clean removal highly unlikely. She came through the surgery with flying colors and her recovery was uneventful. She was started on a chemo regimen where she takes one pill each day, which she tolerates without any issues. Seven weeks post-op, she started with her back spasms again. I was devastated – fortunately, they aren’t anywhere near as severe as they were prior to her surgery, but I also remember that was the way the spasms started to begin with. Her doctor is totally puzzled about the quick return of her symptoms – I’m just sick. I can’t afford any more testing or surgery – the MRI and surgery cost thousands upon thousands of dollars and I have nothing more that I can give. So far, she’s getting through the spasms without much fuss and I hope she continues this way for many more months. In every respect, she’s a normal, happy, active Labbie girl. To see her out in the yard, chasing her ball, you would never know there was anything wrong with her. I am a big believer of quality of life and am prepared to help her leave this world once she no longer enjoys being a dog. I think she’ll let me know when it’s time to go.

  3. Sadie Anne says:

    Hi Nancy,

    My furry little family member, Shadow, was diagnosed with lymphoma at the ripe old age of 11. The diagnosis was confirmed by none other than you, Dr. Nancy Kay, at your former practice in Rohnert Park, CA.

    At 11, Shadow was considered an older dog but being part Border Collie he could live to be 15 or more. Other than goose egg sized lymph nodes all over his body he was a very healthy, active dog.

    Without treatment he would only live, at most, two months.

    Our immediate thought was “we have to be reasonable. After all it’s not like he is a person”. That thinking didn’t last. He may not be a “person” but he is part of our family.

    You, Dr. Kay, got us set up protocol for chemo-therapy and the medication was administered by our own veterinarian in Ferndale, CA.

    After the 1st treatment, Shadow’s lymph nodes returned to normal size.
    We continued for a total of 10 treatments.

    There were 4 different medications that were administered and only one of them made our little dog feel unwell. During the entire time he didn’t lose his hair. He may have increased his shedding a bit.

    We had our dog for an additional 4 years. He lived to a ripe old age of 15 years. Without you and the chemo, we would’ve only had a couple months.

    It was SO worth it.

    Thank you Dr. Nancy Kay

    Sadie Anne

  4. Mary-Jo says:

    We just let our 14 1/2 year old Aussie go after a battle with lymphoma. The truth is, the cancer was the least of his problems! Had he been a young and vibrant dog, I firmly believe he would have lived many more years with the amazing care and treatment we were able to give him. His hips were shot and his body was simply breaking down. But we did get an extra 8 solid and HAPPY months out of him with the chemo. We are blessed to live 10 minutes away from one of the top cancer centers in the country. The quality of care was unsurpassed — cannot say enough about the whole experience. Of course no one wants to hear cancer is the diagnosis, but modern medicine is a beautiful thing. Luckliy dogs do not have to endure many of the side effects that humans do, and his life was just as it was before the diagnosis. We made the decision to let him go after exhasuting the treatment options with which we were comfortable. Our boy ate snickers bars and baby ruths provided by the phenomenal staff literally until his last breath. As hard as it was, it was beautiful and peaceful and he was surrounded by love. That’s all we could have asked for.

  5. Mary-Jo says:

    We just let our 14 1/2 year old Aussie go after a battle with lymphoma. The truth is, the cancer was the least of his problems! Had he been a young and vibrant dog, I firmly believe he would have lived many more years with the amazing care and treatment we were able to give him. His hips were shot and his body was simply breaking down. But we did get an extra 8 solid and HAPPY months out of him with the chemo. We are blessed to live 10 minutes away from one of the top cancer centers in the country. The quality of care was unsurpassed — cannot say enough about the whole experience. Of course no one wants to hear cancer is the diagnosis, but modern medicine is a beautiful thing. Luckliy dogs do not have to endure many of the side effects that humans do, and his life was just as it was before the diagnosis. We made the decision to let him go after exhasuting the treatment options with which we were comfortable. Our boy ate snickers bars and baby ruths provided by the phenominal staff literally until his last breath. As hard as it was, it was beautiful and peaceful and he was surrounded by love. That’s all we could have asked for.

  6. ERIN PICCOLI says:

    I spent 2 years, 3 rounds of chemo for my 3 yr. toy american eskimo with Lymphoma. I didn’t hesitate to make that decsion with her based on her age and her personality. There is a lot of time spent at the hospitals with staff and you have to decide if your pet can take that-I have other dogs who would not do well with that. I would tell anyone who decides to go through with treatment to be prepared-it is a emotional rollor coaster, the ups and downs are as hard on the owners as it is on the pet. We lost the battle after 2 years but with her I would do it all again. The bond that happened going through it all with her changed my life and I think enriched hers. Good luck to any who decide to go through with treatment.

  7. Miriam Yarden, B.Sc.,MS,APDT says:

    Two of my companions, both seniors, developed cancer. My Bearded Collie “Sir Bedivere” was attacked in the urinarty tract, a type of cancer that seeds very fast. Surgery was nnot an option because of his age and the type of cancer he had. He died in my arms at the age of 15.

    My tiny Greyhound/Mini Schnauzer-x “Mr. Smidgeon” developed kidney cancer. Again, surgery would not have helped, there was his age to consider and chemo was not something I would want to put my companions through. He also died in my arms at the age of 18.

    You are so right, Nancy. This is a terrifying situation and the decisions are extremely difficult. After sleepless nights and miserable days I made the decision to do nothing except palliatives if necessary, up to a point in time. Pain is unacceptable. I knew that they will let me know when they are tired and ready to go.

    They left me with the memory of their courage, perseverance and long, happy life. Actually, they never left me – they are still in my thoughts and in my heart.

  8. helen Kashmer says:

    We are not strangers to cancer but typically it was always too late to have a response to it. We lost 2 dogs previously but this time around we got a chance to deal with it. After our girl was diagnosed we researched our hearts out while we waited for our appointment at the clinic. All that did for us is confuse ourselves more. The clinic (PVS-EC) was where we learned a lot and what our journey would be like over the course of our girl’s life. Talking with the vets, staff and the other owners there was very helpful in our decisions with her. The hardest part was dealing with the people that gave their opinions no matter how much it hurt you, even threatening us. I know people can be cuel at times.
    It is a rough journey and expensive at times but well worth the reward of having the love from your pet. It has been a year since our girl, Mitsu was diagnosed with cancer in her right shoulder. She is still going strong and with any luck we will have her another year. She is 11 but she has got so much spirit and life in her that people are shocked to learn she is living with cancer. Follow the suggestions Dr. Nancy Kay mentions in her blog. They are good rules to follow…

  9. Jean says:

    I’ve had cats with lymphoma, squamous cell carcinoma, nasal adeno carcinoma, melanoma, and currently one with lung cancer. Chemo worked well for lymphoma, but get it aspirated and diagnosed before giving any prednisone to the cat. If you get a diagnosis of melanoma on a cat’s ear, get the ear cut off, but xray the lungs also since it goes to the lungs next. Squamous cell carcinoma was once cured in a dog’s mouth by black salve (see Dog Fancy magazine, November 2006, page 19). They recommend surgerical removal of the tumor when a cat has lung cancer. I opted not to do that on 17 year old Oliver, who would not tolerate an e-collar and hates going to the vet. Instead, I am giving him Chinese herbs Astragalus 10 and Stasis Breaker. They also used astragalus in a study for human lung cancer at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. So far Oliver is doing well, eating, drinking, and no signs of coughing or breathing problems 3 months after diagnosis.

  10. Jane Eagle says:

    The last I read, about 85% of dogs in the U.S. die of cancer. I am convinced it is due to the pure garbage which are the ingredients in almost all kibble. For a real eye-opening education, go to: http://www.bornfreeusa.org/facts.php?more=1&p=359

    So, I have been through cancer several times with my siberians. The first was Pomo, who developed testicular cancer. When I got him, I really did plan to have him neutered. But I had just sustained a severe back injury, and he was never aggressive in any way, and didn’t chase girls, so I let it slide. BIG mistake. When he was 7 or so: cancer. Of course, he was neutered instantly, my vet got good margins, and he had a sonogram every 6 months for a couple of years to make sure it did not return. It did not, and he died of old age at 15.
    Next was Denali, who had arthritis as she became older. One day, I pointed out to my vet that her belly seemed bloated and sounded strange when I patted it. Instead of doing an expensive sonogram, she did a needle aspiration with an instant diagnosis of hemangiosarcoma. She warned me that Denali, the love of my life, could die that day, or last a couple of weeks…but no more than that. That fabulous woman also warned me that at the end, Denali would just bleed out into her belly and collapse; and there was nothing to be done. She said most dogs die in the car as their humans rush them to the vet, and not to bother. So, she died at home in my arms, and it was a good death, following a good life.

    Then there was Arctic, who went from seeming perfectly healthy, to dead in 10 days. No one could figure out what the problem was, although she spent several nights at the vet for observation because she was so ill. I realized she was dying, and brought her home to die with me. We later ascertained that it was most likely liver cancer. I spent thousands trying to save her; my vet apologized for that, but my feeling all along was that if I skimped on the money, I would die of guilt for the rest of my life, thinking I might have saved her life if I had spent the money. It was a bargain to not have the guilt. After all, that is what money is for: to help those we love.
    Most recently, my Pola’Bear was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Due to my own injury and situation, I no longer have any credit cards, and I was frantic to have the surgery ASAP, since everything I read said it is an extremely aggressive cancer and metasticizes fast. My vet allowed me to make payments, and she had a great recovery. The day I got the call that the tumor was benign, I literally cried for joy!
    My personal thoughts about ongoing treatments are that I would, if necessary, do chemo and radiation for a young dog; for a dog over 10 (with a 12-15 year life expectancy), I would hesitate. It would depend on the prognosis.

  11. kabbage says:

    Yep. Had a dog diagnosed with neoplasia when she was 13years and 8 months old. They didn’t get enough cells with a needle biopsy to get a definitive diagnosis of cancer type, but I didn’t worry about it. The dog had a serious heart murmur that made her a poor surgical candidate and had done most of what she needed to do in her life. I opted not to treat, kept her fairly happy for another 8 months and helped her on her way when she said she was ready to go.

  12. Lynne Powers says:

    My first ridgeback Mona had a mast cell tumor (at about 3 yrs old) near her shoulder- I opted for surgery only. Had good margins. The tumor never returned and she lived to over 14 years
    My youngest ridgeback Brijit had sarcoma on an arm, which I had removed. She had numerous other health issues also, and that arm hurt her until the day she died, at 8+ years old.
    My “middle” ridgeback had a splenic tumor, which I had removed, but we found out very shortly after the surgery that it had spread to her liver. She was 11 years old and previously quite healthy.
    I miss them all…

  13. Kathi says:

    This was a wonderful, thoughtful post about a powerfully emotional subject. Highly recommended

  14. donna says:

    Our Murphy, 7 yr old mixed breed (possibly retriever mix), was just diagnosed in February with cancer. He had started limping in October on his right front leg. I initially thought that he probably strained it running out the door, which all 3 of our dogs do everytime they go out. We had it x-rayed and were told that his elbow looked good, and at the time he was taking pain medicine & anti-inflammatory, so he was walking on it. Once the meds were done, he started limping worse, so my vet reviewed the x-ray & put him back on the meds. When he finished his 2nd rounds of meds, he started limping even worse, yelping alot, not eating or drinking, not wanting to go outside, so we made an appointment at Michigan State University school of veterinary medicine with the orthopedics department, plus started up his meds again. In February we went to MSU and had an x-ray…I was convinced that he either had a fracture that was missed or maybe a ligament or tendon injury, so I was totally caught off-guard when I was told he had a tumor. They did a chest x-ray (which was clear) & a flouroscopy-guided biopsy. They assumed it was osteosarcoma. The cytology reports said that it was not a bacterial or fungal infection, highly suspicious of osteosarcoma. It took 2 weeks to get the results of the biopsy, but it showed chronic inflammation. In March we went back, more x-rays and now the area around his elbow was slightly swollen. The x-rays showed change, the tumor was eating away at the bone & some bone was already gone. Then we had to decide – do we biopsy again? or go ahead with amputation? We went with surgery. It took another 2 weeks for the biopsy report, and this time it said histiocytic sarcoma…less common in the bone, usually found in organs, and also very aggressive. It’s been a month and Murphy is acting more like his old self..running around, alert, happy. He had his first dose of Chemo last week and has not had any side-effects. So far we have spent probably over $5000, not so easy to do with the costs of things the way they are these days, but how can we do nothing? We’re hoping that he’s part of the 50% who live more than 1 1/2 years :)

  15. Sari Reis says:

    Excellent information Nancy and a very important and timely piece. Thanks.

  16. Amy says:

    Being involved with rescue and being a softie for old ones, I’ve experienced a dog with mouth cancer (squamous cell), bladder cancer (transitional cell carcinoma, TCC), melanoma, and three with breast cancer. None of the breast cancer girls died from breast cancer. The three others died from their cancers. The mouth cancer & bladder cancer primary tumors just grew to where they got in the way. My momma’s boy who had melanoma seemed to have been cured but it reappeared on his heart and he developed pericardial effusion (blood in the sac surrounding the heart, which put pressure on the heart). My current 16-year old geriatric girl seems to have lymphoma but she’s too fragile for a biopsy due to age and heart disease. She still has just the one ginormous tumor between her colon & her spine 6 months after it was first discovered. Her heart disease is her bigger problem now.