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When the Diagnosis is Cancer

Take charge and don't panic!
Your pet's cancer diagnosis does not equal pain, suffering and death! There are many cancers in pets that are curable and for those that are not curable there are many options for treatment. You will need to understand all the options available to you and your pet and formulate a plan of action.

Consult with a cancer specialist.
It is important to initiate care with a specialist who is board-certified in veterinary oncology. Many general practice veterinarians do a great job at treating cancer, but they may not have the latest information on treatments available. An individual who specializes in veterinary oncology has spent extra years in training, is highly experienced in cancer care, up-to-date on the best treatments and sees hundreds of pets with cancer every year. This individual will examine your pet and review previous test results with you, as well as suggest further tests that may be of importance in confirming the diagnosis or understanding the severity of the disease. They can take over the cancer care or simply help your veterinarian with medical decisions and treatments as part of the medical team.

Find a veterinary cancer specialist in your area:
Veterinary Cancer Society

Gather information and ask questions.
In order to know which options are best for treating the cancer, there are three questions that must be answered.

  1. What type of cancer does my pet have?
  2. How advanced is the cancer at this point?
  3. Are there any health factors about my pet or the cancer that alter the anticipated outcome or the treatments available?

Often there are additional tests or pieces of information that are needed for the medical team to fully understand the nature of your pet's cancer. You should inquire about the costs of suggested tests, less expensive alternatives and the advantages and disadvantages of the various options. Once the medical team has the information they need, they can discuss the treatment options available.

Make a list of treatment options.
There is no "right" or "wrong" option for cancer treatment. Options often include treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or combinations of these. There are also minimal treatment options available as well. Because there is more than one way to treat a particular cancer it is very likely you will have more than one treatment option presented to you. You should ask about the side effects and benefits of each treatment option, as well as ask about alternative or complementary treatment options. Pets respond differently than people to cancer treatment - often better with significantly fewer side effects. You will want to have enough knowledge about each of the options to make an informed choice. It is important to make a list of the treatment options available, ask plenty of questions and then think about things carefully. Your medical team can help you decide how much time you have to make your decision without jeopardizing your pet's health.

What are your goals for treatment?
We all want the best for our animal companions and making decisions for them following a cancer diagnosis is difficult, especially because they cannot speak for themselves. It's important to ask yourself about your goals and expectations. Do you feel that as long as overall quality of life can be preserved that you want to try for a cure or a remission? If temporary side effects are likely, does this change your decision? Alternatively, do you feel that simply making your pet as comfortable as possible is the best choice for you? Gather questions to ask the medical team who will be administering the care for your pet. Are there unpleasant symptoms that will occur as a result of progression of the cancer if minimal or no treatment is instituted? Can these be controlled? Most cancer specialists are very sensitive to the fact that pet owners want to provide the best quality of life for as long as possible. Sometimes temporary or mild side effects are very acceptable if a symptom-free remission is possible. Some forms of cancer treatment that may seem aggressive or extreme from the outset can offer a long-term quality of life that wouldn't have been possible without treatment. Even minimal treatment can help a pet be more comfortable. You will need to weigh the expected outcome of each treatment with its expected side-effects. Don't believe everything you read on the Internet! You should be very careful when searching the Internet for information. There are many biased opinions and inaccurate information to be found. The information we have assembled in the "When Your Pet Gets Cancer" and "When Your Pet Gets Cancer – End of Life Choices" modules available through this web site is designed to give you everything you need to know about your pet's cancer, including overviews on cancer, the treatment options available and their effectiveness, and questions to ask your veterinarians. This information is current, comprehensive and comes from reliable sources.

Stay realistic.
Cancer treatment has its ups and downs and it is realistic to expect some changes and bumps along the road. Good communication between your veterinary team throughout the course of treatments will help. You will need to stay grounded and focused to fight this disease and good quality information will empower you to make good decisions.

Don't forget that you can stop at anytime.
Just because a treatment is available, does not mean you must pursue it. Furthermore, if a treatment is having too many side effects, or you change your mind about moving forward, you can stop. Veterinary cancer specialists value quality of life as a priority for treatment in animals. No one, including your medical team, wants the treatment to be worse than the disease! If you decide to stop a particular treatment, communicate your thoughts to your medical team. Make sure to inquire about alternatives. Weigh your choices and make the best decision you can with the information you have.

Get support from others who understand the emotional, financial and time impact involved with a cancer diagnosis.
Until you've been down this road, it's difficult to appreciate the impact a diagnosis of a pet's cancer can have on your emotional, financial and time resources. Be realistic about your financial resources. Cancer treatment can be expensive and time consuming. People who do not have pets often have a difficult time understanding. Seek out others who have had experience with this journey. Support groups are available and veterinary cancer referral centers often have the names and phone numbers of clients who have pets that were diagnosed with a similar cancer. Many of these owners are willing to share their experience with you. This may help you make decisions for your own companion. It is also helpful to know that you are not alone.

Be your pet's advocate.
Your companion needs an advocate throughout the decision process and treatment of cancer. You know your dog or cat's personality, habits, emotions and behavior better than anyone else. Of all the people caring for your pet, you are the person in the best position to speak for him or her. A good veterinary medical team will respect your opinions and wishes. Be sure to discuss these with them so that both you and they are clear about your concerns and goals.

Stay positive!
Animals can sense their owners' feelings and respond in behavior and emotions to those of their owners. Stay focused on the pet, not the cancer. You will find that when you remain positive, your pet's general sense of well-being and happiness will be positively affected too.

By Dr. Nicole Ehrhart, VMD, MS, Diplomate ACVS
Professor, Surgical Oncology
Animal Cancer Center, Colorado State University