The Silver Lining (how to cope if your dog is diagnosed with cancer)

Posted on January 30, 2018

Last week one of my dogs, Silver, was being lazy.  This wasn't exactly surprising because she's a senior Golden Retriever who naps about 22 hours each day.  Silver routinely lays down while eating her meals, and she 'plays fetch' by sitting on the porch while my husband runs around the yard collecting dog toys.  But last Tuesday she was being more lazy than usual (who knew that was possible?) and so we made a trip to the vet.  We actually made multiple trips to multiple vets... more on that later.

We are still awaiting the results of some diagnostic tests, but the information we already have indicates that Silver may be sick with either Leukemia or lymphoma.  Those are devastating words to hear, and honestly it's difficult for me to type them.  This is the fourth time (in a 5 year period) that one of my dogs has experienced cancer.  I am not a doctor or an expert but this is also not my first rodeo.  I have learned some things during the past 5 years and would like to share them with you, in hopes that my experiences might be able to help if your dog is ever in a similar situation.  Of course these tips are not medical advice, just words of encouragement and empowerment from one dog lover to another.

1.  You know your dog.  This article from Dr. Ann Hohenhaus describes the "Top 10 Warning Signs of Cancer in Pets".  Maybe your dog is vomiting or refusing to eat, but even minute or ambiguous changes in behavior can indicate that something is wrong.  If your dog "seems off", trust your instinct and have your dog examined by a doctor.  

2.  Not all equipment is created equal.  There are differences between a pair of eyeglasses, a magnifying glass, and a microscope.  Similarly, there are differences between a portable ultrasound machine (generally costs about $3k) and the ultrasound technology available in specialty and teaching veterinary hospitals (these instruments cost upwards of $50k).  The first doctor (a general practitioner) who performed Silver's ultrasound thought she had a splenic mass but advised that we should get a more sophisticated ultrasound image before proceeding with surgery.  I immediately drove Silver to a specialty hospital, where doctors concluded that her spleen was fine but her lymph nodes were enlarged.  I'm grateful our general practitioner encouraged us to receive a more sophisticated ultrasound - this conservative advice spared Silver an unnecessary abdominal surgery and the subsequent healing process.  

3.  Stop grieving, there is work to do.  I will admit that I went through an entire box of tissues last Tuesday, and will probably go through another before this week is over.  I love Silver so it's natural that any threat to her happiness, safety or well-being makes me upset.  I know it's the same for you and your dog.  But here's the thing... every single moment I spent with tears in my eyes is a moment I am NOT using to enjoy Silver's company and a moment I am NOT using to help her.  Silver is relying on me to coordinate the best care possible and that means I need to understand her condition, understand our options, and make educated choices that are right for her.  In order to do this I need to be well-rested, composed and organized.  So if you are in a similar situation, finish up the tissue box.  Dry your eyes, go for a nice walk in the sunshine, and get ready to help your dog!!!

4.  Consult with a specialist.  Veterinary Oncologists have undergone extra schooling in order to specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in our pets.  There are only about 250 Board Certified Veterinary Oncologists in our country, and we are fortunate to have access to 4 of them in Charlotte (see more information at Carolina Veterinary Specialists and CARE).  We also have additional resources in Raleigh, at NCSU's Veterinary Hospital The perspective and guidance of a Veterinary Oncologist is an invaluable part of your dog's treatment plan.  

5.  Collect as much information and ask as many questions as you possibly can.  Read books, talk to your network of people, join a support group, and scour the internet for any information that may be relevant and helpful.  A good place to start is The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, which has been described as a "crash course in canine cancer for the layperson".  This book discusses conventional and holistic treatment options and, most importantly, galvanizes you to be an effective Advocate for your dog.  

As you are collecting information, compile a list of questions (it will be LONG) and bring it to your dog's Oncologist.  In general I like to know: what evidence has lead to my dog's diagnosis, do you have any doubt about the diagnosis (why?), what can we do to make my dog comfortable immediately, what treatment options do you recommend, what are alternative treatment options are available and why are you recommending against them, what are the potential benefits and side-effects of each medicine you are recommending, what else can I be doing to help my dog?  I try my best to form educated questions and process the answers so that I can confidently make decisions for Silver.  This is a potential life-or-death situation and is not the time to be shy.

6.  Investigate new technologies and consider ancient ideas.  Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are the three tools conventionally used to treat dogs with cancer.  Although Silver's doctor has determined it's not the right course of action in her case, I am intrigued by the recent developments in veterinary immunology and the advent of a so-called "cancer vaccine".  And while you are researching all of your available options, you may want to consider elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which can be used alongside more conventional treatments.  As Dr. Dressler writes in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide (mentioned above), "Western medicine does not have the 'cure' for cancer - so who are we to exclude treatments that might help?"  

7.  Feed your dog, starve the cancer cells.  It's generally accepted that a diet low in carbohydrates and high in protein and Omega 3 fatty acids will help your dog's body fight cancer.  This three part series by Dr. Patrick Mahaney further addresses feeding strategies for canine cancer patients.  Whether you are considering a commercially available or home-prepared food, be sure to discuss any potential dietary changes with your dog's Oncologist.  One option to consider is The Honest Kitchen's Grain Free Base Mix, which combines the convenience of a commercially available food with the health benefits of a fresh diet cooked at low temperatures.

8.  Remember to look for The Silver Lining.  So, the bad news is that approximately 50% of dogs over the age of 10 develop cancer, and my sweet Silver is one of them.  But there is some good news in this situation, and I'm sure if you look closely, you can find good news in your dog's situation too.  It's good news that Silver has lived 11+ years of life being completely healthy and happy.  It's good news she didn't end up having an unnecessary abdominal surgery.  It's good news that I have a relationship with an amazing Oncologist who is located nearby and doing everything in her power to help Silver.  It's good news I can bring Silver to work and watch her nap at my feet.  It's bittersweet, but also good news that I have this opportunity to reflect on how precious each day of life is.  So go hug your dog and Carpe Diem!