10 Things I Tell People Who Just Learned Their Dog Has Cancer
I love my Dolly girl. More soul sister than pet, she keeps me grounded and makes me laugh. When I learned in April that the cancer removed from her leg two years ago had recurred and could not be successfully treated with surgery alone, I lost it. The next few months were some of the most challenging -- emotionally and physically -- of her life and mine. I have learned so much that I wish I had known at the beginning of this journey, which has involved multiple surgeries and weeks of radiation therapy.
With that in mind, I put together this list of 10 things I tell people who just found out their dog has cancer, with the hope of making life just a little bit easier for others in the same situation.
1. Wipe your tears and take a deep breath.
No matter what your next step, the near future will be difficult for you and your pup. You need to be calm and collected to fully understand the treatment options.
Ask as many questions of medical professionals as you need to, and don’t feel bad if you ask the same question more than once. You will be given an overwhelming amount of information in order to make what will be one of the most important health decisions of your dog’s life.
2. Make an appointment with an oncologist.
Canine cancer comes in a variety of types and grades. While your pup’s veterinarian may be able to surgically remove certain cancers in certain locations, not all general practitioners have the advanced education and experience needed to fully discuss treatment options and recurrence rates, or the facilities at which to provide radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and other treatments. Animal oncologists do, and they work with board-certified surgeons to deliver the best possible outcomes for pets.
Had I known two years ago what I do now, I would have put Dolly in the care of specialists instead of the veterinarian she had at the time. It was my understanding after her first surgery that the low-grade soft-tissue sarcoma on her leg was successfully removed. Turns out, at least one cell remained to ensure a recurrence. Radiation therapy would have prevented or delayed that regrowth. I knew nothing of recurrence rates and the need for further treatment to lower them, because I did not consult an oncologist.
Even if the location of your dog’s cancer allows for surgery by a general practitioner, still consult with an oncologist if necessary to fully understand your pup’s type of cancer and its grade, as well as additional treatment options and the recurrence rates they offer. I am so grateful to Dolly’s current veterinarian, Dr. Jenny Johnson, for pointing me toward an oncologist and giving me the push I needed to get past the initial sticker shock of radiation therapy and make an informed decision.
3. Get all bumps checked.
Dolly has bumps all over her body. The first one arrived in 2006 and proved to be a benign fatty tumor, as did every other one tested until two years ago and then again until April. Shortly after surgery and the start of radiation therapy for her regrown soft-tissue sarcoma, I noticed that a bump on the inside of her thigh previously dismissed as fat had gotten bigger. Turns out it was a mast cell tumor and would require another surgery and five additional radiation therapy treatments on top of the initial 19.
Had I asked for a thorough check of all bumps, Dolly would have had one surgery to remove both and only 19 treatments, as the oncologist would have expanded the radiation field from day one.
4. Figure out your finances.
Once you understand the scope of your dog’s disease and the treatment options, do the math. Dolly’s care cost around $10,000 for all tests, surgeries, radiation therapy treatments, and medication. Cancer treatment does not come cheap, and you must determine what you can afford or what you can afford to owe.
5. Don't rush deciding on a treatment plan.
If you do all of the above, you have everything you need to make an informed decision. Don’t feel bad if you struggle. I anguished over what to do: The surgeon ranked amputation as the best option, while Dolly’s oncologist said she felt confident with removal of as much of the cancer as possible followed by radiation therapy. Of course, I feared putting my 10-year-old pup with arthritis in both shoulders through amputation and wanted to believe in the less-drastic course of action. That said, I feel I made the best decision for Dolly in the long run. Take as long as you need to do the same for your pup, within the time frame allowed for optimal treatment results.
6. Clear your schedule.
Animal oncology practices tend to number in the few rather than the many in any given area, which means they stay busy and require hours of your time per appointment if you wait, instead of drop off and pick up later. Because Dolly’s oncologist was 30 minutes away, I waited each day and worked in the lobby on my laptop. I brought my other dog, Spot, to almost every appointment, and he napped next to me when not charming the office staff and other pet parents into giving him treats. I did this for 25 almost-consecutive weekdays.
Even if you drop off your pet on the way to work and swing by after, the practice most likely will be out of your way and make for much longer days. Add to that sticking close to your pup during the healing process and you won’t have time for much else.
7. Prep yourself and your home for healing.
With radiation therapy, reactions show at the radiation site only. Pets lose their hair there, and toward the end of treatment a condition called moist dermatitis sets in and sticks around for about two weeks. For Dolly, this particular reaction was the worst part of her treatment and recovery. The radiation site would scab over, thick and crusty, and then the scabs would crack and fall off. The newly exposed skin was bloody at times, and she was uncomfortable even on pain meds, making for many a sleepless night for everyone.
If your pup undergoes radiation therapy, you will want to use old blankets or towels to cover your couches and wherever he or she sleeps to avoid staining. Also, the radiation therapy tech will mark the perimeter of the treatment field with something semipermanent so it does not have to be redrawn daily. With Dolly, it was a red Sharpie that she rubbed all over the carpet in an effort to scratch her itchy leg. Chemotherapy does not have external side effects like radiation therapy, but it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and/or decreased appetite. Just plan on getting your carpet cleaned after treatment ends.
Bonus to-dos: Stock up on pill pockets and vitamin E gel caps. Rubbing vitamin E onto the newly exposed skin eases some of the discomfort.
8. Use the cone.
Ah, the dreaded cone of shame. Get one — or one of the less shameful alternatives I wrote about a few months ago — and use it faithfully. Even a few minutes of licking on the radiation site can set your dog’s recovery back weeks, and constant licking will keep moist dermatitis around for months. Look at the photo above again if your pup's pathetic pleas to remove the cone ever start to sway you.
9. Celebrate milestones.
At the end of each week, Dolly's oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Arthur, would include notes on her discharge papers. One said, “Dolly looks great today! Her radiation side effects are healing nicely, and the dry scabs are beginning to flake off on their own (with a little help from us). Dolly is a sweetie, and I am very pleased with her progress thus far.”
Like A’s on a report card, we would celebrate each note by stopping by Bone Appetit Bakery, the mom-and-pop pet-supply store in our neighborhood. The owners, Helen and Joe Goldblatt, would make pupcakes for Dolly and Spot, and we would celebrate getting through another week. Do something similar to keep everyone's spirits from dragging.
10. Know it all will be worth it.
The miles. The time. The money. The stress. It all will be worth it. Trust me. No matter how many more months or years you get with your dog, you will treasure every one. Had I not gone through with radiation therapy, I would be days away from saying goodbye to my Dolly girl, instead of writing this article with her snoring sweetly by my side. I just can’t imagine life without her.
Have you gone through cancer treatment with one of your dogs? Or did you decide not to treat because the disease was so advanced or because of cost? Please share your stories and any advice you have in the comments.