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
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