10 Things I Tell People Who Just Learned Their Dog Has Cancer

My Dolly has gone through it multiple times. Here are things I wish I'd known earlier.
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Note: I wrote this story back in September of 2012. Since then, Dolly has had three additional mast cell tumors removed and is currently undergoing palliative chemotherapy for two inoperable MCTs and a soft-tissue sarcoma. Also, she no longer gets pupcakes as I’ve since put her on a homemade diet that works with her chemotherapy to slow MCT growth.

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, as in my case.

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-do’s: 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.

Read more about canine cancer issues on Dogster:

18 thoughts on “10 Things I Tell People Who Just Learned Their Dog Has Cancer”

  1. my dog is 18 and developed both anal gland adenocarcinoma and soft tissue sarcoma. i definitely agree – i wish i had consulted with an oncologist. one other thing i wish i’d learned – use a board certified everything; anesthesiologist, surgeon and of course radiologist. my dog did will with the surgery, but it did recur. he had 5 treatments of radiation. i also wish i had not been so afraid of anesthesia – the anesthesia is very light and short for radiation. if my dog can make it through all this at 18, and still be running and wagging and jumping as he did for me today – anyone’s dog can 🙂 Best of luck to everyone facing this challenge. it has been an intense journey.

  2. A week ago my beautiful girl Kierra was diagnosed with lymphatic sarcoma. Untreated she might last a month or two.
    The vet is not hopeful that chemotherapy will help.
    She is nearly 5 years old and I’m in shock. She has these lumps under her neck, behind her front and back legs. She is not showing any signs of pain. She’s eating,drinking and playing with her best friend (my other dog) who she loves.
    I’m struggling to know what to do.

  3. My beautiful Tilly has been diagnosed this week with a grade II soft tissue sarcoma. I’m absolutely devastated she is my best friend and rock. I have serious health problems and spend much time alone we are together constantly. She had surgery to remove what was thought 1 small fatty lump and 1 faster growing fatty lump. Sadly the sarcoma was hiding underneath the fatty lump. Its a week later, today sutures removed and she has a slight infection so now in antibiotics. The vet only had the large lump sent to the histologist however the vet is concerned when taking out the sutures the structure of the small lump has changed to mirror the lumpy formation of the sarcoma so…has it spread already? I’ve booked an oncologist appointment aware radiation will not be an option due to the location. I have very limited pet insurance left so long drawn out treatment is sadly not affordable. I’m hoping there is enough for oral chemo and it works. In general she us eating well and enjoys walks but sleeping a lot. I just hope I can have more time with my sweet, funny and headstrong beautiful furbaby. She doesn’t deserve this…we’ve had 8 years together after she started life with 3 homes before 10 months. Life can can so cruel but ill do my best for her whatever that means so she has quality and I must not be selfish but do the best for her welfare.

  4. Our dog was diagnosed with cancer yesterday. The tumor is encased at the moment and was found during an emergency surgery for a urinary blockage as a result of stones. She also suffers from gastro problems, almost lost her from that. She is 8 years old and not sure what we are going to do at this point. I forgot to mention she has an enlarged heart and has a murmurr. The operation to remove the tumor is the most difficult a vet can do and she may not be able to survive it do to her heart condition. She always follows me everywhere and is like a third leg or arm. While I can not imagine being without her, I do not want her to suffer and want to enjoy our time together. I am retired now at 62 and looking back I realize how much my pets (dogs) have meant to me and tought me about life. Good luck to anyone going through this inevitable decision for us all.

  5. Our dog was just diagnosed with metastatic mammary cancer. Our vet consults with oncologists at Michigan State University, and they have recommended against chemo because there is no drug that has been proven to be effective against the form of cancer she has. We rescued her knowing she had a mammary tumor and hoping that it was benign or we would get it removed before it spread. We are looking into holistic treatment. She is very tired but otherwise seems happy, her appetite is good and she loves her walks.

    1. Hi there,

      So sorry to hear this! These articles might help provide some insight. Please work with your vet for support and to ensure your dog gets the help he needs:
      https://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/dog-cancer-treatment
      https://www.dogster.com/dog-health-care/canine-cancer-treatments-what-to-do
      https://www.dogster.com/dog-health-care/alternative-dog-cancer-treatments
      https://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/fighting-canine-cancer-with-rodney-habib-planet-paws-and-ketopet-sanctuary

  6. My sweet little 10 year old terrier mix has a soft tissue sarcoma on his back that I am having removed next week. It is my hope they get it all, but will probably follow up with oncologist regarding radiation just in case, i don’t want him to have it come back, but his skin is so sensitive already, not sure I want to put him through that. Thank you for the article and other stories in the comments.

  7. Thank you for this article. Very helpful info on the side effects of the radiation for a soft tissue sarcoma. I’m not sure that I’m willing to put my dog through that, even if I had the money. I thought it was one lap of radiation and done after the excision. I had no idea it was multiple ones, and that it could cost even more than the chemo. While we cannot imagine life without our 6 yr old dog, I’m afraid that we will have to go the route of palliative care instead of treating.

    1. Hi Rob,
      How is everything going with your fur baby? We found out about a month ago, our sweet Otto has small cell intestinal lymphoma- there is not much written on this, his vet also said it is rare in dogs … He has been on a low dose of chlorambucil, as well as other supporting meds, and has good and bad days. Hoping to hear of other positive experience with this type of cancer!

  8. I sincerely hope anyone who stumbles upon this article takes the advice given. My sweet girl had a mast cell tumor removed and we did not follow the steps this blogger recommended and here we are 7 months later with the tumor coming back, growing rapidly- we see our vet tomorrow- after the first removal I wish I would have seen an oncologist and done chemo, or seen a surgeon for the first removal, our vet told us she “took as much as she was comfortable taking” I now know that was not enough.

  9. I know this article is a from a few years back, but I just stumbled upon it today and it is all so true! We found out a few months ago our 12 year old Doxie has an inoperable (and not responsive to chemo) heart tumor. We had hoped it was slow growing, but after an x Ray re check 6 weeks after diagnosis we confirmed it was growing faster than we hoped. Gratefully, our wonderful veterinarian then refered us to a radiation oncologist, and we are starting palliative radiation treatments on Monday.

    Everything you wrote about is so right on, and reading it gives me comfort that we are doing everything we can, and making the beat decisions for our little love. Much love to you and your sweet Molly.

  10. On 11/11/2017 we took our beloved Megatron to our regular vet for something that looked like a bacterial infection. Megatron was tested and had high white blood cells counts where we were told it was an infection somewhere in his body. He was given a penicillin injection and a 7 day antibiotic along with a referral to a near by emergency hospital if he didn’t improve in the next few days and was sent home. After 4 days of his 7 day antibiotic very little improvement. We sold our couch, grill and opened a go fund me account to see if we could find some support to help us find answers. On 11/20/2017 we were finally able to collect enough money and take him to the hospital to run advanced testing. The results were outright shocking and continues to run through our heads non stop. Megatron has been diagnosed with Lymphoma. We know we were explained in detail the diagnosis but if you ask us what this means we couldn’t explain it well or in detail at that matter. As difficult as this is for our family we are taking each day at a time to figure our next step. We hope that some reads this and points us in the right direction to help us see some light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you for reading.

    1. Man o man same situation with my son just overnight couldn’t walk eat or drink lymphoma, I’ve opted for prednisone alone no chemo and after 3 days he is walking again eating and drinking I know we don’t have long together but everyday hour minute I’m with him is worth it if I had listened to the vets he wouldn’t be with me right now

  11. After weeks of fighting an upper respiratory infections (we we’re both sick due to Hurricane Harvey and the aftermath it left) and her high dose of 10mg steroid taper down, and antibiotics the vet prescribed., She started developing on her rear leg, by her metatarsals swelling and limping so severely she could barely get around as the steroid and lack of activity from being sick put a little weight on her. Took her back to the vet he took an x-ray and one of her metatarsal bones showed she had osteosarcoma. Vet said he could amputate but she would not do well due to her age, she is 11 and her weight. So we taper down and finished the steroid and now she is on daily Gabapentin which gives her more use on her leg or she can move around but the swelling is still there. She’s always been a happy playful dog and it pains me to see her this way. She doesn’t seem to be in pain but she just can’t jump up and run like she used to before she was sick and the medications. I ask the vet if the height of steroid possibly exasperated this and he did agree it could have which saddens me even more knowing that my sweet Mary dog may not have had this irritation. It breaks my heart, I’m reading information on diets she’s always been spoiled and I always talk to her and tell her we’re going to beat this. I do not have money and it’s all I can do to scrape up to take her to the vet so any chemo or any onocologist is out of the question for me. I don’t know what happens from here but I’m staying positive and I talked to the cancer to leave her body and pray that she will be miraculously healed. Thank you for your article it was inspiring
    Warm regards Natalie and Mary dog

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