What To Do When Your Dog Is Facing A Cancer Diagnosis – Information Overload

Canine Cancer
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What To Do When Your Dog Is Facing A Cancer Diagnosis – Information Overload

My Dog Has Cancer:

Your well-respected veterinarian, who has been caring for your best friend since puppyhood, dropped a bomb on you today.  You brought your sweet little girl to the clinic because she was acting a little bit “off” and had a raw, swollen spot on her lip.  It was Friday afternoon, and you didn’t want to chance that this was an allergic reaction to a bug bite and have her get worse over the weekend when the clinic wasn’t open.  As always, you were being cautious and proactive about your little girl’s health.

You weren’t expecting to catch your veterinarian’s face change from relaxation to concern when she was feeling your dog’s neck.  Despite her attempt to conceal this concern, you saw it and cannot un-see it.  Why was she spending so much time concentrating on feeling your dog’s neck, then her shoulders, then behind her back legs?  Why was she asking her technician to feel these areas, too?

Then, you heard the phrase “swollen lymph nodes” coupled with “infection versus cancer,” and your whole world tipped on its axis.  Despite your veterinarian’s attempt at being cautiously optimistic that this was some sort of immune system reaction to an infection or an allergic reaction, all you could think about was the possibility of cancer.  In your mind, there were no other possibilities.

This was the scenario I found myself in on a warm, July afternoon in 2019.  One of my favorite clients brought her sweet Dachshund, Lucy, in to see me because she had a raw, swollen spot on her lip.  I wasn’t expecting to find multiple, swollen lymph nodes that fateful Friday afternoon.  I wasn’t expecting to have to tell Lucy’s wonderful owners that their youngest of three dogs could potentially have an incurable cancer called lymphoma.

Of course, that Friday was a typical Friday afternoon in the veterinary clinic.  It was “crazy busy,” and there unfortunately wasn’t a lot of extra time available to go over all the important information about canine lymphoma.  We scratched the surface by discussing the main highlights of this common form of canine cancer, but I knew that by doing so, this discussion would bring Lucy’s mom no sense of peace over the weekend.  The lymph node aspirates and the blood work results that would help us to confirm our suspicions wouldn’t be back until Monday.

Three days . . . 72 hours . . . that’s a really long time to think about whether or not your beloved dog may have cancer.  Even waiting one day can be excruciating.

I worried about Lucy all weekend, too, and how her owners were coping with her potential cancer diagnosis.  Were they spending their weekend searching the internet for all things lymphoma-related?  What information were they finding?  Was this search just making them more and more stressed as the weekend continued?  I am sure that this was one of the longest-feeling weekends of their lives.

This is not an uncommon scenario in the veterinary field, or in the human medical field, for that matter.  Veterinary and medical professionals have a finite period of time in which they can share important information with their clients about a disease diagnosis before they have to attend to their next appointment.  In many cases, the shock of a diagnosis that may reduce a patient’s longevity or quality of life doesn’t allow a person’s brain to really comprehend all of the information that is being verbally shared in the exam room.  The word “cancer” strikes fear into everyone’s hearts, and oftentimes that’s the only word that is dwelled upon for the rest of that particular appointment, perhaps even for the rest of that particular day.

When the proverbial dust has settled, and your brain has had time to catch up with what it has comprehended, where does that leave you standing with your beloved dog?  You are left with more questions than answers, likely.

Where do you turn to get more information about your dog’s cancer diagnosis?  Are most internet websites about this subject accurate when your veterinarian isn’t available to talk to?

Before you can make a commitment to treat or not to treat your dog’s cancer, you need to know more about the cancer that your dog has.  The best and most reliable source of this information is going to be your veterinarian or, better yet, your veterinary oncologist.

Yes, veterinarians are busy people, but they are committed to the health and well-being of their patients and, as an extension, their clients.  Do not be afraid to make another appointment with your veterinarian to sit down and talk to him/her about your dog’s diagnosis in more detail, when your brain has had time to process the initial shock of the cancer diagnosis and is ready to learn more information.  Your veterinarian is a trusted resource when it comes to information about your dog’s illness.

If your veterinarian does not have as much knowledge as he/she would like to with regards to the type of cancer that your dog has, a referral to a board-certified veterinary oncologist may be recommended.  These specialists have received at least three years of advanced training and testing beyond veterinary school to work exclusively with cancer patients.  Even if your veterinarian is comfortable discussing the ins and outs of your dog’s cancer diagnosis, it is never a bad idea to consider getting a second opinion from a veterinary oncologist.

These two people are fantastic resources, but we must face the reality that they are not always available when we have burning questions that we need answers to, especially when we are lying awake in the middle of the night!

Begrudgingly to the majority of the veterinary community, this is where internet searching comes into play.  I say begrudgingly because there are many “resources” out there on the World Wide Web that do not provide factual or accurate information, and it is very difficult sometimes for people to sift through what is accurate and what is not.  Your veterinarian doesn’t want you to get misled by information that isn’t true.  “Dr. Google,” as veterinary and medical professionals have so jokingly nicknamed him, doesn’t have a medical degree and doesn’t always provide you with the best and most accurate information.

However, the internet does contain a wealth of good information, if you just know where to look for it!  For starters, you can search for articles associated with veterinary school or veterinary practice websites.  These websites will often provide pet owners with downloadable brochures or files about specific forms of cancer.  Veterinary oncologists may have their own personal websites or social media sites that contain information about different forms of pet cancer, and this will also be highly valuable.  Articles associated with websites of organizations that fund canine cancer research are also likely to be very factual and accurate.  Journal and magazine articles on the subject of canine cancer written by veterinary professionals are also going to be highly accurate; however, many of these are written with other veterinary professionals in mind as the audience, and these articles may not be as easy to understand without a medical background.

Caution must be taken towards navigating personal websites, social media groups, and blogs that are not connected in any way to veterinary professionals.  While these sources of information may have factual and accurate information within them, they may also contain anecdotal information about treatment options, response rates, survival times, and treatment side effects that may not be relevant or statistically significant.  If information is not repeatable via several sources, it is not likely going to be extremely helpful!

The following list of websites, while not exhaustive, contains accurate and helpful information with regards to canine cancer:

When you are faced with the extremely stressful and scary diagnosis of cancer with your canine best buddy, remember that there are many good informational resources available to you.  Allow yourself some time for your brain to catch up to this bad news first, but then realize that you are not alone with this diagnosis.  Lean on the professional people and websites that can provide you with helpful, accurate information about your dog’s specific type of cancer.  Arm yourself with this information so that you can better understand your dog’s diagnosis and what treatment option is going to be the best one for your best buddy and you.

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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