When Susan’s beloved border collie Cody was diagnosed with lymphoma in early 2001, she was devastated. However, Susan wasn’t willing to just give up on her long-time companion. She became determined to find out as much as she could about this disease. Her research paid off: She discovered that lymphoma was a fairly common form of cancer and that there were treatment options available. Susan was then able to locate a veterinary cancer specialist who provided Cody with the treatment she needed without drastically compromising her quality of life.
“The good news is that we were able to give Susan another 18 months with her pet,” says Dr. Philip J. Bergman, Cody’s oncologist and head of the cancer clinic at The Animal Medical Center in New York City where Cody was treated.
FROM PEOPLE TO PETS
As breakthroughs in human medicine prolong and save the lives of countless people with cancer, veterinary medicine is following right in its footsteps. Many of the tests and procedures used in people are now becoming available for pets. And, more than ever, pet owners are pulling out all the stops in treating what ails their pets.
“As pet owners learn about successful treatments for cancer and other diseases in humans, they want to find the same high-level treatment for their pets,” says Dr. Bergman.
For many types of cancer, treatment for pets is not that different from what it would be in people. “The goals in treating cancer in animals are to prolong life with good quality, to cure the cancer if possible, and to relieve pain and discomfort in the pet,” says Dr. Bergman. Once a diagnosis of cancer has been confirmed (see “Red Flags of Cancer” below), the owner and the veterinarian must decide on the best course of action. Factors to consider include the pet’s age and general health, type and location of the cancer, cost of treatment, and quality of life with treatment. “Owners should also know that some cancers carry a worse prognosis if the pet is young,” notes Dr. Bergman. “Therefore, older pets may do just as well or even better than younger pets depending on the scenario.”
The three standard types of cancer treatment used in people—surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy—are also the most commonly used in animals.?Just as in human medicine, there are a variety of new and experimental therapies that can be used either alone or in combination with standard therapies to treat cancer effectively in pets.
There are two basic categories of cancer: sarcomas and carcinomas. Sarcomas originate from structural tissues, such as bone, muscle, or connective tissue, whereas carcinomas originate from nonstructural tissues such as skin cells, blood, and glandular tissue. The two most common ways to collect cells for cancer diagnosis and tumor identification are by fine-needle aspiration of the tumor to obtain enough cells for identification, or a biopsy to obtain a piece of the tumor. The cells are examined microscopically for changes that would be consistent with a particular form or type of cancer. The cancer is then assigned a grade and a stage, with grade indicating tumor aggressiveness and stage identifying whether the cells have spread to other organs.
Once the cancer has been identified, graded, and staged, treatment options can be explored. Cancer is essentially abnormal cell division and growth. Cell division, under normal circumstances, is a routine biological process. However, when cancer is involved, the cell divisions become abnormal and uncontrolled, resulting in tumor formation and/or spread of the abnormal cells. Treatment for cancer is aimed at either removing the abnormal cells or interrupting the abnormal cell division and growth that is occurring.
As mentioned earlier, surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy are common treatment options for pets. The type of treatment or therapy that would be appropriate for your pet depends on:
- Cancer type (microscopic evaluation of cells)
- Grade or stage of the cancer (how aggressive and how fast it is spreading)
- Location (skin tumors are much easier to remove surgically than a lung tumor)
Surgical removal of some forms of cancer can eliminate the disease, but radiation and chemotherapy may be necessary to destroy cancer cells that remain following tumor removal. Radiation therapy can work well on a local area of cancer that either cannot be treated surgically or was treated surgically and some of the cancer remains in the tissue. Radiation works by harming the rapidly dividing cancer cells, preventing them from dividing and spreading. Chemotherapy works by killing rapidly dividing cells. It is common to use more than one chemotherapeutic agent during treatment, and although these drugs are powerful and can cause side effects, these side effects are not as drastic as many pet owners fear. Some vomiting and diarrhea can occur in sensitive pets, but medications are now available that can lessen these side effects. It is also important to note that dogs and cats do not lose their hair while receiving chemotherapy treatment.
CHOOSING THE BEST OPTION
As scary as it might seem when you first hear that your pet has a life-threatening disease like cancer, dealing with the disease does not have to be a frightening process. In fact, the best approach, as Susan found when her pet was diagnosed with cancer, is to become proactive. You can become an advocate for your pet, learning about the disease, researching advances in treatment, and even getting a second opinion if necessary. Informed owners who work together with their pet’s health care team are best equipped to deal with the disease and determine the best plan of action.
With all of the new advances in veterinary medicine, a diagnosis of cancer does not have to be a hopeless situation. Researchers are constantly looking for new ways to cure cancer in pets—one pet at a time.
RED FLAGS OF CANCER
“Cancer is actually one of the more treatable diseases and is curable in many cases,” says Dr. Bergman. An early diagnosis will help your veterinarian deliver the best care possible and give your pet his best chance for successful treatment.
An annual checkup will help your veterinarian discover problem signs early. However, if you notice any of these red flags, call your veterinarian right away:
- Lumps or abnormal swellings
- Sores that do not heal
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained bleeding or discharge
- Offensive odor
- Difficulty eating or swallowing
- Loss of stamina or unwillingness to exercise
- Persistent stiffness or lameness
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty urinating or defecating
- Bloated appearance in an otherwise thin pet
THE BEST IN THE BUSINESS
As treatments become more advanced—and owners are more determined than ever to obtain the best care possible for their pets—increasing numbers of veterinarians are becoming specialized in specific areas of medicine. A veterinary specialist receives formal training and experience beyond veterinary school in a particular disease area and is specially trained to diagnose and treat animals with that disease. Notes Dr. Bergman, “A veterinarian who refers a patient to a veterinary specialist is really no different from a general practitioner on the human side who refers a patient to a specialist.”