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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?

Nancy Kay D.V.M.
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
Website: http://www.speakingforspot.com
Spot’s Blog: http://www.speakingforspot.com/blog
Email: dr.kay@speakingforspot.com

Written by

Dr. Nancy Kay wanted to become a veterinarian for just about as long as she can remember. Her veterinary degree is from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, and she completed her residency training in small animal internal medicine at the University of California-Davis Veterinary School. Dr. Kay is a board certified specialist in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and published in several professional journals and textbooks. She lectures professionally to regional and national audiences, and one of her favorite lecture topics is communication between veterinarians and their clients. Since the release of her book, Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, Dr. Kay has lectured extensively and written numerous magazine articles on the topic of medical advocacy and veterinarian/client communication. She was a featured guest on the popular National Public Radio show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Dr. Kay's newest book is called, Your Dog's Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet. Her award winning blog, "Spot Speaks" is posted weekly (www.speakingforspot.com/blog). Dr. Kay was selected by the American Animal Hospital Association to receive the 2009 Hill’s Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award. This award is given annually to a veterinarian or nonveterinarian who has advanced animal welfare through extraordinary service or by furthering humane principles, education, and understanding. Dr. Kay was selected as the 2011 Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year, an award presented every year by the American Veterinary Medical Association to a veterinarian whose work exemplifies and promotes the human animal bond. Dr. Kay has received several awards from the Dog Writer’s Association of America. Dr. Kay's personal life revolves around her husband (also a veterinarian), her three children (none of whom aspire to be veterinarians) and their menagerie of four-legged family members. When she's not writing, she spends her spare moments in the garden or riding atop her favorite horse. Dr. Kay and her husband reside in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
  • Judith Larkin May 20, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    I am the editor of the Gordon Setter News in Canada and the Pacific Northwest Gordon Setter News in WA. I would love permission to reprint this article for our members. It is to our club members only and I would give proper credit of course. Please let me know. Thank you for this concise, readable article of great import.

  • Carla Cunningham
    Carla Cunninghamars. May 20, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    For me there was no choice. I had decided after the initial round of chemo I would never do that to my gal again and when the time came, I’d let her leave with dignity and respect. Fortunately for me … that time came 7 1/2 after the initial diagnosis and she lived 13 1/2 years. I would do the same thing next time.

  • Laura Gilchrist
    Laura G May 20, 2014 at 4:45 PM

    This article came at a tough time in my life. We are right now dealing with a boy at end stage prostate cancer. It is never easy hearing your pet has cancer. Some times surgery is a option and sometimes it is not. You will be in for a roller coaster of emotions from why my dog to I don’t know if I am making the right choices. Just remember to let your four legged friend guide you down this path. He or she will let you know if the treatment is right for them, just keep your eyes open. When the time comes to say good bye remember to let your pet go with love and dignity.

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