A few days after recovering from an emergency splenectomy, our dog Boomer, was ready to come home from the animal hospital.

When we picked him up, we had already been given the devastating diagnosis – he had Hemangiosarcoma. Also known as HSA, this rapidly progressing and aggressive cancer arises from the cells lining blood vessels and is often found in the spleen, liver or heart. With surgery and chemotherapy, his survival rate was only 1-3 months. Immediately, I saw a clock above his head.

After learning the cancer hadn’t metastasized, I scheduled a consultation with the oncology department. The next available appointment was 3 weeks away. I cried on his surgeon’s voicemail asking for help. Next, I called the Integrative Oncologist suggested by the animal hospital. It was a Friday and after hours. I left a voicemail and was called back 3 days later. I was given information on cost, making payments, Covid protocols, cancelation policies, etc. We barely spoke about Boomer. The following day, they emailed me forms to complete. There were so many and with questions needing detailed answers. I appreciated the thoroughness, but I had yet to even schedule an appointment. As I filled out the documents, Boomer’s clock ticked louder.

I was called the next day to schedule a consultation, which would be another week away. I felt like I was just spinning my wheels wasting the first month of his last three. And then the Oncology Department at the animal hospital called. The surgeon came through and got me an appointment for the very next day. After his consultation, we immediately started chemotherapy and I canceled with the Integrative Oncologist. Boomer handled the treatments very well and I felt he was in good hands. Four months after being diagnosed, we had to let him go. I’m happy we chose chemotherapy but in hindsight, I would have included Integrative Oncology. At the time, I didn’t know enough about it and had no time to research. Hemangiosarcoma’s window is small, and it waits for no one.

What is Integrative Oncology?

The biggest misconception about integrative medicine is that it’s not real. For some people, hearing terms like holistic, natural, and alternative are associated with hippies and positive vibes or witch doctors and magic teas. Contributing to the skepticism is the mistake of believing that these alternative therapies are meant to replace conventional health care, when in fact, it’s used to compliment it.

Integrative medicine is healthcare that treats the body as a whole.  Combining traditional and holistic cancer treatments for dogs, provides personalized care focusing on the patient, rather than just the disease. Standard Veterinary oncology concentrates on destroying or slowing cancer cells. Integrative Veterinary oncology includes therapies that support overall wellness, maintaining quality of life, managing side effects, and limiting pain. Treatment plans can include immunotherapy, nutrition, acupuncture, herbal therapy, and more.

Dogs diagnosed with terminal cancer, like Hemangiosarcoma, can still benefit from the addition of alternative treatments such as, Intravenous Vitamin C Therapy and Acupuncture.  Given in high doses, Vitamin C can kill cancer cells, extend survival rate, boost the immune system, fight side effects, and improve quality of life. Acupuncture can help in pain management, reduce nausea, stimulate appetite, and improve white blood cell counts. Just like the patient though, no cancer is the same. And treatments that work for one patient, whether conventional or alternative, may not work for another.

Is Integrative Oncology right for me?

I can’t say if the supportive therapies used in integrative oncology would have given us more time with Boomer, but I do think it would have helped us all to better enjoy the time we did have. With chemotherapy, he was taking Turkey Tail Mushroom, which has been proven to extend the survival rate for this cancer. From there, I spent my time researching supplements, foods, side effects, and vitamins. The mixing, measuring, and planning was overwhelming, and I began questioning if I was doing my best to support him. Knowing what I know now, this is where we could have benefited from having an integrative oncologist.

I had my reasons for canceling his appointment but ultimately, it was due to my lack of education in this type of medical care. His cancer was a starter pistol for me. As soon as he was diagnosed, I was running a marathon. My head was spinning, his clock was ticking, and I couldn’t pause to learn more about it. My reasons were small, and had I known what additional options they could have provided, I would’ve kept the appointment. Unfortunately, your first time as a parent of a dog with cancer is a “grow through what you go through” situation.

Does Pet Insurance cover Integrative Veterinary Oncology?

Working alongside traditional oncologists, integrative oncologists can provide the alternative therapies themselves or have a team of providers. “Ours” was the sole provider of the therapies. From performing acupuncture to mixing tinctures, they did it all.  At the time, in 2021, Boomer’s pet insurance didn’t cover holistic care. The consultation alone was $400. Since then, that same insurance company now includes it in their benefits. A common practice for pet insurance is to offer the coverage as an “add-on” or place restrictions on certain therapies. If you’re considering buying or changing your pet insurance, look for plans that are customizable and think about what you can realistically afford without insurance.

Integrative Oncology may or may not be right for you and your dog. Nevertheless, it’s important to not only be aware of treatment options, but to understand them as well. You’re faced with some very difficult decisions when your dog is diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that the choices I made were right for us at the time. You don’t realize you need something until you need something, so I try my best to learn as much as I can about canine cancer, specifically treatments, and hope there’s never a circumstance where I need to put that knowledge into action.

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