When you’re standing in an exam room, holding your dog or cat and waiting for a diagnosis, the last thing you want to hear your veterinarian say is "cancer." It brings to mind a rush of complex, confusing emotions. Maybe you are reminded of your own experiences, or a friend or a relative who dealt with cancer. You feel powerless to help your pet, almost like you’re under attack. You have a whole list of new decisions to make about treatment, finances, and caretaking. A minute ago, you were thinking of your pet as healthy and happy; now you are afraid that he will suffer, or lose mobility, or even that you could lose him. In an instant, one word has changed your whole world.
All of these feelings, confusing and conflicting as they might be, are completely normal. Cancer can be a complex, frightening disease that brings on a lot of very emotional reactions. But once your initial fear starts to fade, you’ll learn that there are a lot of reasons to take heart. Though all cancers are different, cancer is, in general, a very treatable disease. In fact, it is the most curable of all the chronic diseases pets can get. When cancer is caught early enough, there are a lot of options. Veterinarians have all kinds of advanced treatments to treat your furry family member, with new therapies being developed all the time, and animals often respond very well to treatment. There is plenty of reason to hope that you and your pet will have a lot of happy years together. As scary as it seems at first, you can make it through your pet’s bought with cancer. If you get informed, work together with your pet’s healthcare team, and take good care of yourself and your pet, dealing with cancer doesn’t have to be a frightening process.
First Off - Educate yourself
One reason cancer can be so scary for us is that it seems so mysterious. Nothing is as frightening as the unknown. You can work through your fear by informing yourself about the disease, the dangers it poses and the hope it offers. Knowing something about cancer will not only help you to make better decisions about your pet’s treatment, but will also help you to feel more in control of your situation.
You first need to understand the disease as a whole. The term cancer is a general one. It refers to any disease in which cells divide out of control. For some reason, the genetic code that tells cells when to stop dividing breaks down, and the cells reproduce at high speed until they form a big mass of cancer cells, called a tumor. This tumor can interfere with and damage other, healthy cells. If they keep growing, the cancer cells can start to spread--or metastasize--to other parts of the body, like the bones or lungs, and the cancer cells can damage them as well.
In Pets Living with Cancer: A Pet Owner’s Resource (AAHA Press, 2000), Dr. Robin Downing explains that, under the general category of cancer, there are about a hundred specific types, each one involving different body parts and having its own name. A cancer can attack the skin, for example, as in Squamous cell carcinoma, or the bones, as in osteosarcoma. Each type of cancer is its own disease, causing unique problems and responding to different treatments. You can take a powerful first step by learning what kind of cancer your cat or dog has, how it spreads, what its survival rates are, and how it’s treated. There are three good ways to do this:
Go to your veterinarian.
Your veterinarian is your most accessible and dependable resource of facts and advice. Don’t be afraid to ask your veterinarian to explain anything that you don’t understand. He or she is there to help you, and wants you to understand the situation as clearly as possible. Keep a notebook to jot down questions that occur when you’re away from the office. Ask your veterinarian for handouts and pamphlets, and underline anything you don’t understand to ask about later.
Go to the library.
It’s an old-fashioned solution, but a good one. Find books on cancer in general, and on cancer in animals. Ask a librarian to help you look up newspaper or magazine articles in a database. Look in the reference section for information about organizations that deal with disease with animals.
This can be a fabulous resource for finding support groups and getting first-hand information from people who’ve cared for pets with cancer. Be cautious, though, about accepting medical advice you find on the Internet, where you can never be sure of your source’s qualifications. Always check your facts with your veterinarian before making decisions about your pet’s treatment. Armed with information, you have the power to move on to planning your pet’s care and treatment.
How will we treat my pet’s cancer?
There is no single right answer to this question. Every dog and cat and other animal is unique, and every kind of cancer is different. The entire network of people caring for your pet will work together to decide what kind of treatment will help your pet live the longest, most comfortable life he can. The kind of treatment chosen will depend on your animal’s age, general health, type of cancer, and other factors. There are, however, three kinds of treatment that are used most commonly.
Veterinarians will perform surgery on a tumor when it can be removed from a pet’s body without damaging other tissue. It is not a viable option if the cancer is large enough to endanger the animal if removed, if the cancer has spread, or if the animal is too weak to survive anesthesia.
This is a process in which an animal is given toxic chemicals, usually intravenously, that are intended to kill the out-of-control, rapidly reproducing cancer cells, without damaging the slower-dividing healthy cells. The good news is, animals often respond to chemotherapy better than humans. They usually don’t have the severe side effects like nausea and hair loss that people can experience.
In this treatment, high doses of radiation are aimed directly at the tumor to shrink it or arrest its growth. This can be done either with a narrow beam of radiation, or with radioactive implants placed next to the tumor. It’s a completely painless procedure.
In addition to these, there are several other, less common, ways to treat cancer. Some of them are new medical treatments, like gene therapy (fixing the flawed DNA in the cancer cells) and cryosurgery (the freezing of tumors using liquid nitrogen). Complementary therapies such as massage, herbal supplements, and acupuncture are also available. Often two or more of these techniques will be used in combination to treat an animal.
After surgically removing a cat’s tumor, for example, a veterinarian might chose to perform radiation treatments to keep any leftover cells from reproducing. You’ll have to discuss with your veterinarian which therapy, or combination of therapies, is right for your animal friend. When you’re educated and informed about your pet’s cancer and its treatment, you can contribute more to this discussion and get more out of it. You’ll be an active, knowledgeable member of the decision-making team.
One of the most important things to know is that you and your pet aren’t fighting the cancer alone. A lot of people will contribute to the process of treating your pet, from your veterinarian and your veterinary technicians to your own friends and family. You may also work with specialists, like pathologists--who test and diagnose cancer cells--veterinary surgeons, veterinary internists, and veterinary cancer specialists. Get to know the people who take care of your pet. Ask them questions and let them know how you’re feeling and how you think your pet’s doing. It’s important that all the different team members communicate with and trust one another, so they can be an effective, unified group working together to keep your pet healthy and comfortable.
Above all, remember that you are the heart of this group. Dr. Downing writes, "Think of yourself as the captain of your pet’s cancer-fighting team." You are vital to your pet: you’re his caretaker and comforter, his protector, bather, feeder, and guardian. He depends on you and needs you to be healthy. The day-to-day work and worry of caring for a sick pet can be overwhelming, though, particularly on top of all your other responsibilities. If you ever start to feel like you’re too stressed out or too sad to take care of your friend, let the rest of the team know. Tell your veterinarian, family, or veterinary technician. Your veterinarian can help direct you to resources to help you deal with grief and loss. Maybe a friend can take care of your dog for a night while you go out; maybe your veterinary technician can teach you how to take care of your cat without putting so much stress on yourself. There are resources out there for you, as long as you ask for help when you need it.
No matter what, the best way you can help your pet is by being with him. Enjoy the time you have with your pet. If your dog or cat can’t run around and play like he used to, you can sit with him while you read, pay the bills, or watch television. Touching your pet is important, too: set aside time to slowly brush and pet him, or give him a gentle massage. Feeling safe, comfortable, and loved is the best thing to keep your pet feeling good emotionally and physically. No treatment in the world will help him as much as being with the human family that loves him. Best of all, spending quality time with your furry friend is good for you, too, lowering your stress level and making it easier for you to cope with his illness. Treasure the time you have with your pet; think of it as a gift. No matter what happens in the future, the lazy afternoons you spend lying with your kitty in the sunshine or rolling a tennis ball to your dog across the living room floor are memories you will have forever.