Understanding cancer in our pets

Posted June 06, 2012, at 11:22 a.m.

On Saturday, June 9, Greater Bangor Bark For Life will be having a fundraising event for the American Cancer Society. Bark for Life is a fun, dog-centered adjunct to Relay for Life, celebrating the canine caregivers of human cancer patients. However, cancer affects dogs directly as well, and the event raises questions about cancer and cancer treatments for dogs.

While cancer is a serious disease in all its forms, it is good to know that there are many ways to help our beloved companions have good quality of life after diagnosis. Veazie Veterinary Clinic will have an information booth at the Bark for Life event where you can get more information, and also has a team walking in honor of their cancer patients.

Some information about cancer in pets

Pets are living longer than ever before, and because more pets are living into their senior years, we are seeing more cases of cancer. It is devastating to learn that your pet has cancer, but many types of cancer can be treated, or the quality of life improved.

The decision whether or not to go forward with cancer treatments can be a difficult one, and is one made by pet guardians with support from doctors. Veterinarians can consult with you about different approaches to cancer management and give you information about the best course of treatment for your pet.

Cancers are diseases caused by cells that are replicating out of control, forming a population of clones. The “parent” cell is a normal cell in the body, and the type of cancer is determined by the type of parent cell, such as a bone, skin, or a blood cell. Once the parent is identified, it tells us the “family” the cancer belongs to, and staging helps determine the prognosis and relative likelihood of the patient’s response.

Cancer is diagnosed by looking at suspicious cells to see whether they are abnormal and what type of cell they are. Veterinarians sample cells in one of two ways:

• Through “cytology,” where a needle takes a few cells from the area, and then the cells are placed on a slide examined under a microscope. This yields a very small sample, but is sufficient for some types of cancer.

• The second type of sampling, “histopathology,” involves taking a larger sample, such as a mass or a piece of a mass, is sent to a specialist for an in-depth review of the tissues. This test yields more information. On occasion, further testing is still needed on the sample to determine the subcategories of disease.

After the diagnosis

The goal in cancer treatment in pets is to minimize the negative aspects of treatment so that the pet can have the best life possible. Dogs and cats do not get as sick as people do with chemotherapy, and hair loss occurs rarely, usually only in certain breeds. Although veterinarians use the same drugs are those used in people, they do not treat as aggressively, thus reducing side effects. Therefore chemotherapy does not eradicate any chance of recurrence.

Your veterinarian will discuss the expected course and treatment options with you. Comprehensive treatments can involve staging of the cancer, surgical removal of the primary tumor, and chemotherapy treatments as well as addressing pain control, nutrition, and overall health and wellness concerns. Some cancers require further testing to aid in choosing a chemotherapy protocol and in providing a prognosis.

The chemotherapy treatment process is different in many ways for our beloved companions. Veterinarians use chemotherapy to give animals a longer life than they would otherwise have, but more importantly, to also make that life more comfortable.

Treatment times vary with the type of cancer. For instance, the most common lymphoma protocol takes about six months to complete, while the most common hemangiosarcoma protocol takes about four months to complete. Most treatments are done every two to three weeks with rechecks of bloodwork done in between. Patients usually stay for only part of the day at each treatment. Most, but not all, treatments are given intravenously.

Aside from chemotherapy, there are many things that can be done to assist a cancer patient. Surgery can be helpful in dealing with the consequences of a mass, improving quality of life. Pain management is critical and can be approached many ways. Good nutritional support is another area that is vital and often takes some ingenuity. Alternative medicine can also offer many options.

When treatments are done, the veterinarian monitors for any signs of recurrence with recheck exams and testing. Some patients receive oral medications at home for the rest of their lives. If the cancer recurs, sometimes a “rescue protocol” can be used to achieve remission again. If remission cannot be achieved, care is provided similar to hospice care in people.

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