Dr. Sue Ettinger came about her motto, “See Something, Do Something. Why Wait? Aspirate,” the hard way.
The Hudson Valley veterinarian, who will present a public program in Watertown on Friday, was treating a dog of one of her nurses and noticed a large tumor. She didn’t think too much of it because the pet had had several benign tumors checked out previously.
Time played a factor when the dog’s latest lump was found to be malignant.
“That was really the motivation and impetus to develop this program,” Dr. Ettinger, who specializes in oncology, said in a April 5 phone interview.
The veterinarian’s “See Something, Do Something …” mantra/program involves checking a dog or a cat for small lumps or bumps — about the size of a pea or an M&M.
“I’ve seen too many dogs and cats over the years that come in with these very large lumps or bumps,” Dr. Ettinger said. “It’s very hard to do surgery or treat them at that point.”
If a pet owner feels a lump on a pet, Dr. Ettinger urges it be checked out by a veterinarian, who will aspirate it. The biopsy technique involves a needle being inserted into the questionable lump to collect a sample.
“What’s really shocking to most people is that they say, ‘Is it worth it to find it early?’” Dr. Ettinger said. “Most subcutaneous (under skin) tumors, if we find them early and if they’re small and we remove them, the pets can be cured by surgery alone, even the malignant ones.”
Dr. Ettinger’s visit to Watertown is presented by Paws 4 Potter, a local organization created by veterinarian Dr. Kyle Ann Stevenson, Dexter, in memory of her Doberman/shepherd mix and “best friend” who died of cancer in June 2015. Dr. Stevenson’s Paws 4 Potter raises awareness about canine cancer, provides information about different forms of cancer and provides donations to the nonprofit National Canine Cancer Foundation.
Dr. Ettinger is an international speaker and author and is the head of the oncology department at the Animal Specialty & Emergency Center, Wappingers Falls, Dutchess County. She is one of approximately 400 board-certified specialists in veterinary oncology in North America.
‘dr. sue: cancer vet’
Dr. Ettinger, also known as “Dr. Sue: Cancer Vet,” received her veterinary training at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca. She completed her residency in medical oncology at the Animal Medical Center in New York City in 2003. She recently won the Woof Pack Award for Exceptional Doctor Performance in the Northeast specialty region. She co-authored the second edition of “The Dog Cancer Survival Guide” and co-hosts the podcast “The Pet Cancer Vet” on radiopetlady.com.
Dr. Ettinger said she decided to focus on cancer in pets after she became fascinated with the science behind it and how the disease develops.
“As I got involved in my internship and I was rotating through the oncology service, I was really surprised, like most pet owners, how well dogs and cats handle chemotherapy,” Dr. Ettinger said. “I also loved the bonds that I developed with owners when they came in, in this very desperate, sad time and you’re able to help them make the right decision for them and their pet.”
Another motto that Dr. Ettinger uses is “Live Longer, Live Well,” which refers to a pet’s quality of life while undergoing cancer treatment.
“Our pets with cancer can do both,” she said.
She recently published an article in a veterinary journal titled, “Cancer is Not a Death Sentence.”
“If you are a pet owner, and you find that your pet has cancer, I think the first step is to tale a deep breath,” Dr. Ettinger said. “The second step is to get educated about it.”
That usually starts with the dog or cat’s primary veterinarian to discuss options and to see if a referral is indicated.
“In general, if you can travel to a board-certified specialist, that would be definitely recommended,” Dr. Ettinger said. “Depending on the type of cancer, we want to advocate that they try to get some information directly from a cancer specialist, sooner rather than later.”
Dr. Ettinger recommended a website — www.vetspecialists.com — where pet owners can be linked to veterinarians who specialize in oncology and other diseases and ailments. But on the website, a search for “veterinary oncologists” in the north country provided no results. There are five results listed for Syracuse.
With only 400 board-certified veterinary specialists in medical oncology in North America, it’s not uncommon for pet owners to have to travel long distances to seek care for their dogs and cats with cancer. Dr. Ettinger said she has pets whose owners drive them up to four hours to her practice.
One obvious issue to address when a pet owner discovers his or her pet has cancer is the cost for treatment. For that reason, Dr. Ettinger recommends pet insurance.
“Unfortunately, most owners are paying out of pocket,” she said.
But those costs can very greatly.
“There’s often a spectrum of options,” Dr. Ettinger said. “It’s not just do nothing or crazy amounts of treatment.”
Dr. Ettinger said that earlier this month she rechecked a cat who is a seven-year survivor of lymphoma, an aggressive cancer for felines. However, other cases could just involve nutritional support and pain medication.
The veterinarian said she tells pet owners they are under no obligations.
“They may choose not to treat for a host of reasons, and that’s OK as well,” Dr. Ettinger said. “But what frustrates me as a specialist is when people come to see me and say, ‘I wish I came to see you two months ago,’ or ‘Why didn’t we remove this lump or bump when it was smaller?’”
Dr. Ettinger said there are some dog breeds that are more susceptible to cancer, such as golden retrievers, German shepherds and boxers. The Morris Animal Foundation is conducting a Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. The foundation describes the cancer survey as the largest and most comprehensive observational study ever attempted in veterinary medicine in the United States.
Dr. Ettinger said there are promising advancements in fighting cancer in pets. A new chemotherapy drug to treat canine lymphoma, Tanovea, was released this month. Its active ingredient, abacfosadine, kills rapidly growing cancer cells.
“And over the last couple of years there’s a vaccine treatment for melanoma that’s been shown to be very effective,” Dr. Ettinger said.
Also, there is better medicine to target the side effects of chemotherapy in pets. For example, there are nausea medications that can be taken once a day, instead of two or three times a day.
As we help pets in their cancer struggles, we can also learn about the disease in humans. Dr. Ettinger is on the scientific committee of the PuppyUp Foundation. One of its goals is discovering “the common links between canine and human cancers and the causes of these cancers.”
“We’re looking for things that can help both veterinary medicine and help human cancer as well,” Dr. Ettinger said. “There are definitely some cancers that can be used as transitional research.”