In today's world, cancer is one of the most serious health concerns people face. This is also true for our pets. I dread giving clients the news that their pet has cancer. It almost immediately brings a pained expression and tears to a pet owner's eyes.
Cancer takes many forms, and not all are immediately obvious.
Some pets have a readily noticeable tumor, others may have a discolored patch of skin, and still others have a mass that can be easily felt in the belly. Less easy to find are cancers invading the stomach lining or those in the nasal cavity. In the last few months, I've found bone cancer in three patients that came in for sudden onset lameness and found tumors when I X-rayed the hurt leg. The point is, vets sometimes suspect cancer, even if there's no obvious lesion to be found.
The treatment of cancer is much more advanced now. There are board certified veterinary oncologists (cancer specialists) and even animal cancer treatment centers. Chemotherapy is more readily available and many veterinary specialty centers can even perform radiation therapy.
I always tell clients considering cancer treatment for their pets that the goals of veterinary cancer treatment are different than those for human cancer treatment.
In human medicine, very aggressive chemotherapy is used that causes many harsh side effects (hair loss, severe nausea, and bone marrow suppression). This is because the goal of human cancer treatment is a cure.
With veterinary patients, the goal is to extend a good quality of life for as long as possible. Most owners would never allow a treatment that makes the patient feel worse than the disease they are fighting. So, our goal is to keep them feeling and doing as good as we can for as long as we can. Fortunately, we are able to give most of our patients a treatment plan that meets the expectations and goals of their owners.
Even with all the advances in treatment, there is still so much we don't know about cancer. More often than not, I am unable to tell a client why their pet developed cancer. In human medicine, there are certain activities that increase the risk of certain types of cancer. For instance, there is a definite increased risk of lung cancer for smokers. There are very few times that we can nail down a definite cause-and-effect relationship for veterinary cancer patients.
Unfortunately, there are some breeds that seem to be overrepresented for certain types of cancer. Boxers are prone to a type of skin cancer called mast cell tumor, and golden retrievers have a higher incidence of hemangiosarcoma (a blood vessel tumor commonly affecting the spleen) than many other breeds. These breed predilections seem to reinforce the idea that genetics play an important role in determining which patients will develop cancer.
There are many factors that play a role in determining which course of treatment is best for each pet. The type of cancer, how advanced the disease is at the time of diagnosis, and location of the tumor all help a veterinarian decide which kinds of treatments might be best applied to that particular patient.
There are other factors that also must be factored in, such as the age of pet, the availability of different treatment modalities and the owner's financial situation.
Many of these treatments can be costly, and most veterinarians are very conscious of the pet owner's out-of-pocket expenses. We must try and balance the most therapeutically effective treatments with the most cost-effective treatments.
Thankfully, the costs of some chemotherapy medicines have become more feasible in recent years.
As more pets are living longer lives, the diagnosis of cancer will be an increasing reality for more pet owners.
Thankfully, we will continue to have more and more tools at our disposal to deal with this issue. Your pet's doctor will be there to help you make the best treatment decisions for you and your pet.
Dr. Michael Dill, a veterinarian at Bienville Animal Medical Center in Ocean Springs, encourages questions for this column. Write to South Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association, 20005 Pineville Road, Long Beach MS 39560 and include a self-addressed stamped envelope.