Last week, in honor of Pet Cancer Awareness Month, I provided some pointers for constructively dealing with the diagnosis of cancer. This week I will deliver information about the treatment of cancer and tips for determining if a pet is a good candidate for such therapy.
The three most common treatment methods used to treat animals with cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Often only one type of therapy is needed to effectively treat the cancer. For example, a small solitary mass might be cured with surgery alone. Not uncommonly, a combination of treatments is most beneficial. Chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be recommended as an adjunct to surgery to destroy any cells that may have spread outside of the surgical incision.
Whether or not various complementary/alternative therapies such as Chinese herbs, homeopathy, or acupuncture are capable of chasing away cancer cells is controversial. Most veterinarians agree that what they do best is help support the patient’s overall health and mitigate any side effects of cancer therapy.
How does your veterinarian know which treatment plan is the best choice for your dog or cat? First, she needs to know which type of cancer she is dealing with. This is accomplished by evaluating a sample of the abnormal cells under a microscope. An experienced pathologist at a commercial veterinary laboratory typically performs this testing. Additionally, determining the stage or grade of the disease (how aggressive and widespread the cancer is) via blood and urine testing and imaging studies allows your vet to know which treatment makes the most sense.
Making the Choice for Your Pet
Diagnosing and staging the cancer is typically the straightforward part. Determining whether or not to treat one’s four-legged family member is often the more challenging piece of the puzzle. If ever you find yourself squaring off with this decision, strongly consider consultation with a veterinarian who specializes in cancer therapy (a board certified oncologist or internist). In no way does such a consultation obligate you to proceed with treatment. Rather, it is an opportunity to gather a bunch of useful information that will assist you in your decision-making process.
Now, here are some important thoughts and questions to consider when the diagnosis is cancer:
Is your pet’s personality well suited to the recommended therapy?
If your dog or cat is a pushover for anyone and everyone who provides an ear scratch and a treat, he may relish weekly chemotherapy appointments. On the other hand, if he turns into a quivering quaking emotional wreck as soon as you turn into the vet clinic parking lot, perhaps he’d be better suited to a chemotherapy protocol that involves appointments spaced farther apart. You may not really know how your dog or cat will respond emotionally until you’ve made the first few visits.
Is your own schedule flexible enough?
Many chemotherapy protocols initially involve once-weekly visits. Rarely are evening or weekend appointments available. If radiation therapy has been recommended, you may need to drive a consider-able distance to a treatment facility. Radiation therapy is typically administered daily, Monday through Friday for three or more consecutive weeks. Many radiation facilities offer the option of boarding their patients during the workweek and then sending them home for weekends.
Is it financially feasible to proceed?
Combination chemotherapy protocols, radiation therapy, and many surgical procedures are “big-ticket” items. Remember, some chemotherapy is almost always better than no chemotherapy. Don’t by shy about discussing your budget. Your veterinarian can use this information to create a treatment protocol for your pet that provides “the most bang for the buck.”
Is treating your pet’s cancer reasonable for you from an emotional point of view?
For those who have experienced the ravages of cancer therapy either for themselves or a loved one, it may be impossible to consider such treatment for a family pet, no matter what reassurances are provided. And that’s perfectly okay. Remember, whether or not to treat your pet’s cancer is always a truly personal choice.
You can call it quits at any time!
When you say, “Yes” to chemotherapy or radiation therapy, all you are really committing to is the very next treatment. If ever you don’t like what you see you can call it quits. Sometimes, simply knowing that this “out clause” exists gives people the wherewithal to give cancer therapy a try.
Focus on the quality rather than the quantity of life.
When I counsel people about the potential pros and cons of cancer treatment, I describe the three goals of therapy as, “Quality of life, quality of life, and quality of life.” There’s no doubt in my mind that we fail our patients miserably when we achieve “quantity” (longer life) only.
Enjoy the “honeymoon.”
Even when a fabulous response to therapy is achieved, it’s difficult for some people to enjoy this time because their minds are so preoccupied with the underlying diagnosis. Keep in mind that those happy, playful, loving pets of ours don’t simply vanish because they have cancer. Even with their disease, they are wonderfully adept at “living in the moment.” When an animal undergoing cancer therapy behaves in a glum fashion, it’s important to consider that they may be responding to the way their favorite human is feeling. If you opt to treat your pet’s cancer, be prepared to enjoy the honeymoon!
Have you ever said, “Yes” to cancer therapy for one of your pets? If so, were you ultimately glad you did so?
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
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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.