Coming To Terms With Your Dog’s Cancer Diagnosis – You Are Not Alone

Coming To Terms With Your Dog’s Cancer Diagnosis – You Are Not Alone
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Coming To Terms With Your Dog’s Cancer Diagnosis – You Are Not Alone

For most of us who have been unfortunate enough to hear the heart-wrenching phrase, “I’m so sorry, but your dog has cancer,” we have experienced nothing quite like the sea of emotions that follow such a diagnosis.  Shock, disbelief, anger, sadness, despair, guilt, and loneliness – all of these feelings wreak havoc on our mind’s ability to process and cope with this information.

Oftentimes, we are broadsided with this terrible news, news that is possibly completely unexpected.  While our brains are trying to catch up and comprehend what is going on, we may miss a lot of important information that our veterinarian is trying to relay to us.  This information may come across like what Charlie Brown’s teacher sounds like in all of the Peanuts movies – wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah.  We may end up going home from the veterinary clinic with so many more questions than answers, and those questions may feel all-consuming and weigh us down completely.  We may find ourselves staring at the computer screen into the wee hours of the morning, desperately searching for answers to these questions, desperately clinging to any shred of hope that this particular form of cancer we are learning about has a cure.  Time seems to stand still at one moment and feel fleeting at another.

I walked what seemed like an endless number of miles in those shoes.  They were new shoes.  You know what kind I’m talking about – the ones that don’t “give,” the ones that hurt at the end of a long day because they haven’t been broken in yet, the ones that you want to return but can’t because you’ve already walked outside in them.

Usually, I am wearing those uncomfortable shoes for only brief periods of time, standing on the other side of the examination table with my stethoscope draped around my neck, gently breaking this canine cancer diagnosis to an unsuspecting client.  But, unlike my client, I can take those uncomfortable shoes off at the end of the day.

But, in May of 2015, my role suddenly reversed, and I was the terrified client receiving that devastating news.  I put those uncomfortable shoes back on, not knowing when or if I would ever be able to take them off again.

That role reversal humbled me significantly, and, as devastating and heart-wrenching as it was to experience an aggressive cancer with my own best buddy, it allowed me to better understand the mixture of emotions emulating from my own clients who were facing a similar experience.

I realized that all of these emotions – shock, disbelief, anger, sadness, despair, and guilt – were part of the natural grieving process, but loneliness in particular made it difficult to process and handle all of the other ones.  When you are faced with such difficult news about your canine companion, it isn’t unusual to feel isolated and alone.  Certainly, your colleagues, friends, and family members will attempt to comfort you, and some of them will be more supportive than others.  But, unless they have donned those uncomfortable new shoes themselves, they appear not to completely understand what you are emotionally going through.

What you may not realize, however, is that you are not alone.

Yes, everyone has different experiences, for no two cancer diagnoses are created equal.  For instance, one individual’s dog with lymphoma may live two years in remission before relapsing, while another’s dog may relapse after only nine months.  But, both of those individuals will likely experience all the same emotions when confronting their dog’s cancer diagnosis.

We are a social species, and it makes sense that we would attempt to gravitate toward others with similar experiences and similar feelings.

Hence the creation and maintenance of what I begrudgingly like to call the “Parents of Pets with Cancer Club,” a club that no one willingly joins but nonetheless finds himself or herself a member of.  There is no welcoming committee or monthly newsletter.  While there are no yearly dues, once you are a member, you are a “lifer” with no chance of unsubscribing.

While we may kick and flail at the prospect of being forced to join this motley club, in all honesty, most of us are relieved to be a part of it once we get our bearings.

These are the people who understand what we are feeling, what our beloved dogs are going through.  These are the people who will help us emotionally as we embark on this terrifying journey with our best buddies.  These are the people who are wholeheartedly invested in making something as beautiful as possible out of something as incredibly hideous as cancer.

So, if you are facing this devastating cancer diagnosis with your own beloved dog, know without a doubt that you are not alone.  Know that there are many people all over the world who are experiencing something similar and are feeling just as lonely as you are.

Where do you find these people, you ask?  You are, in fact, searching in the perfect spot already.  When I was coming to grips with my own dog’s cancer diagnosis, I found the National Canine Cancer Foundation’s website by luck and happenstance.  However, when I perused their website and Facebook page, I realized that I had found the people whom I had been searching for . . . people who had been through or who were currently going through the same things that I was going through.  I realized that I could talk freely about my dog to the members and followers of the NCCF, and they would respond kindly and compassionately.  Plus, the NCCF has a wealth of information on its website with regards to different forms of canine cancer, so you don’t need to travel far to obtain relevant and factual information.

You may also find similar camaraderie within other, less-formalized groups that have sprouted up on social media platforms such as Facebook.  If your dog is facing a cancer diagnosis, chances are, there is a Facebook group about that particular type of cancer.  I would urge you to be cautious about believing absolutely every anecdotal piece of information discussed in those groups, but they do a fantastic job at making one feel less isolated and alone.  There are also many people out there who share their journeys with others through their dog’s very own Instagram (or Facebook) account.  Following these dogs can also provide you with a sense of camaraderie.

You may also have luck finding other people with similar situations through your dog’s veterinarian.  There may be a local group of these dog parents that you could potentially associate with.

Once you are able to combat this feeling of loneliness, you will likely be more mentally prepared to learn about your dog’s diagnosis and what options are available to your dog for treatment.  Now, it’s time to pick up the telephone and call your dog’s veterinary office.  Arrange a time when you can either meet face to face with your dog’s veterinarian or speak on the telephone with him or her.  While it may seem that the internet provides a vast amount of information on pretty much anything you could possibly imagine, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain what information is truly factual or simply anecdotal.  Make sure to utilize your dog’s veterinarian for the majority of the information that you are seeking, and allow him or her to point you in the right direction for reputable websites for further information about your dog’s cancer.

The phrase, “I’m so sorry, but your dog has cancer” strikes fear in the hearts of all dog owners who are forced to hear it.  We will likely never “get over” hearing that phrase.  However, if we realize that we don’t have to be alone in dealing with this devastating situation, we can instead focus on learning information about our dog’s particular cancer and how to go about helping our dog to still live life to the absolute fullest.

You are not alone.  There is strength in numbers when those numbers are made up of people who understand what you are going through.

By Dr. Kyle Stevenson

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Kyle Stevenson

Dr. Kyle Ann Stevenson graduated from the Atlantic Veterinary College on PEI in 2007 and practices companion animal medicine in upstate NY. In 2015, she lost her "soul dog," Potter, to an aggressive heart-based cancer and found solace and inspiration in the National Canine Cancer Foundation. In 2016, she created a small non-profit organization, Paws4Potter, whose mission is to raise awareness for pet cancer, to provide people with the tools that they need to detect cancer earlier in their pets, and to help people understand that pet cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. Paws4Potter also raises money for the NCCF through fundraisers and donations. In 2018, Kyle became certified in animal hospice and palliative care through the IAAHPC.

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