A diagnosis of cancer generates fear and uncertainty. It not only causes pain and suffering in our pets, but also causes emotional stress and sadness for their owners. Although cancer is among the leading causes of death in dogs and cats, the medical and surgical advances in veterinary medicine have resulted in longer disease-free periods, a larger percentage of pets getting cured, and a better quality of life with the disease.
Depending on the type of cancer, we are able to cure some, treat others, and at least provide comfort care for the remaining. However, in order to provide the cancer pet with the best option, a definitive diagnosis in needed. The workup may involve biopsying or aspirating the tumor, performing an abdominal ultrasound and chest radiographs to look for metastasis (spread) of the disease, blood and urine analysis, and possibly a bone marrow evaluation. Besides figuring out what kind of cancer we are dealing with, knowing how the rest of the body is working is just as important. If there is any evidence of heart, liver, and/or kidney disease, the type of treatment may change. Once all of this information is evaluated, the treatment is planned out.
Chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and other forms of therapy are the mainstream cancer care options. If the cancer is not curable, does not respond to treatment well, or the owner elects the “no treatment” option, we can at least provide palliative therapy that can give an owner more time with their pet that is not only quantity, but quality.
The most common treatment, chemotherapy, has the misconception that the cancer patient will suffer and will have a decreased quality of life. However, in general, most pets receiving the chemotherapy drugs experience minimal side effects and usually have more energy and an improved appetite. Some drugs may cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, but are usually self-limiting within a couple of days and can be easily prevented. Pets receiving chemotherapy should be able to enjoy all of their normal activities.
In veterinary medicine, our goal as veterinarians when treating cancer is to prolong life, while at the same time improving the quality of life. The commandments to obtain this goal are: (1) do not let them hurt, (2) do not let them vomit or have diarrhea, and (3) do not let them starve. But, beyond that, it is to let these pets live their remaining life happy with their owners. To let them be themselves. Remember that good communication with your veterinarian or oncologist (cancer specialist) is important. Never hesitate to voice your concerns or ask any questions.