Having a dog diagnosed with cancer is very scary and can be very overwhelming. After hearing your vet say the word "cancer" your mind may have gone blank and you might have forgotten everything else said during the visit. Your mind may have wandered to thoughts about your dog feeling painful, suffering, wondering if you were going to lose him, or to wondering how you would manage to live without him.
Hearing the word 'cancer' may have also brought back all-too-recent memories of family members or close friends with cancer and the agony of watching them go through severe nausea and discomfort during treatment, or the pain that they experienced towards the end.
If you've experienced chemotherapy or radiation treatments, you may be thinking 'there's no way I'm going to put my dog through that'.
All of these are very common thoughts and feelings that I see clients experience on a daily basis.
The good news is that veterinary oncology is VERY different than human oncology - you may know this already. Our goal in treating a dog with cancer is to help them live longer despite their cancer diagnosis. However, it is equally as important to make sure we're not compromising their quality of life during treatment.
In some cases a dog's quality of life is poor because of their cancer. Examples of this include bone cancer (causes severe pain), cancers in the gastrointestinal tract (cause nausea, diarrhea, discomfort), certain skin masses (can be painful or extremely itchy), etc. In these situations, the patient may only feel better if their cancer is treated appropriately and if they respond to treatment.
In my experience, most of the overwhelm that is experienced by a family after a cancer diagnosis is due to having more questions than answers.
Common questions include: Can my dog's cancer be treated? What treatments are available? Are the treatments effective? Can I afford treatment? Will treatment be rough on him? Will he suffer? Can he be cured? How long will he live? How did this happen? Could I have caught this sooner? How long has he had this? Is his cancer a result of something I did or didn't do or from something I fed him? Is it too late to get insurance? Should I change his diet? Is he in pain?
Do any of these questions sound familiar?
When a family comes in for a new consult (the first time I meet them), we sit down and discuss their dog's cancer and specific situation for about an hour. During this time, I give them as much information as I can with the information I have (based on the tests that have been performed) about their dog's cancer.
We discuss possible treatment options, cost, how long their dog might live with each option, possible side effects, if more tests are needed prior to starting treatment, how we can improve their dog's quality of life (if I think they are painful/nauseous/have diarrhea/etc.), and what to expect in the upcoming weeks and months.
We also discuss how things might progress (and how quickly or slowly) if the family elects to focus on treating their dog palliatively - focusing on maintaining as good of a quality of life as possible but not treating their dog's cancer directly.
I find that even if a family only meets with me once, for a consult, they usually feel significantly better due to having more clarity about options and what to expect. I didn't really do anything, I just provided information and might have adjusted medications to make sure their dog's quality of life is as good as possible for the time being.
After the initial consult, many people think of additional questions. They're welcome to reach out to me by phone or email so we can make sure they have a very good understanding of everything.
This is how every oncologist works.
It's normal to feel overwhelmed about your dog's disease. If this is how you currently feel, I encourage you to seek out a consultation with an oncologist (this might be a one or two hour drive away). This will allow you to get all of your questions answered and obtain as much information possible about your dog's cancer. Having the additional information should help you decide if you want to treat your dog or not, and may provide additional treatment options that you were not previously aware of. If you elect to keep your dog as comfortable as possible (treat palliatively), the oncologist can offer additional suggestions as to how best to accomplish this.
If you know that you want to focus on palliative or hospice care instead of cancer treatment, and would prefer having a veterinarian come to your home, you can search for a vet that provides this service. Use this link (International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care) to find a certified veterinary practitioner or ask your vet if they can recommend someone in your area.
If you feel very emotionally taxed from caring for a pet with cancer, this is also very normal. It is very difficult to be the primary caregiver for a pet with cancer. There are many therapists that specialize in pet-related compassion fatigue, loss, and grief counseling. Feel free to contact me for a reference.
If you're struggling, just know that both help and information are available for you and your dog.
Have questions about this article? Reach out!
Dr. Lori Cesario
Board Certified Veterinary Oncologist
Other articles you might enjoy...
(1) How to Assess Pain and Quality of Life in a Dog with Cancer
(2) 6 Steps To Get The Most Out of Your Oncology Consult!
(3) Help! What Are They Talking About? (Part 2)
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