Let’s face it: cancer is never a good word to hear. While you’re probably used to hearing it being applied to diseases in people, we should all be aware that cancer can affect our pets too. In fact, figures suggest that cancer plagues our four-legged friends as much as it does our human family, with almost 50% of all disease-related pet deaths resulting from complications of some form of cancer. Ultimately, 1 in 4 dogs and 1 in 5 cats will develop cancer in their lifetimes.
As a practitioner, I’m not personally a big fan of using the word “cancer”; I think it’s too vague to accurately describe to most of the things we come across. When you consider that a small, completely harmless skin tag can be called “cancer”, then compare that to an aggressive bone tumor which can be labeled using the same word, you can probably see what I mean. When dealing with such important matters, it’s important to know some basic terms:
Neoplasia – (Pronounce it with the word “play” in the middle) The medical term for “cancer”, it means “new growth” in Greek. And cancer is just that; a very simple definition is that cancer is an uncontrolled reproduction of cells.
Tumor – The abnormal growth caused by the neoplastic/cancerous disease process. Tumors can be of almost any conceivable size and shape depending on the type of cell that is affected.
Benign – A “good” word to be using about any form of cancer. Benign tumors do not tend to invade neighboring tissues or spread to other parts of the body. Benign tumors often don’t even need to be removed but, if necessary, surgical removal usually cures the problem.
Malignant – The opposite of benign. Malignant tumors can grow very quickly and are often able to spread through the bloodstream (metastasize). Many forms of cancer can be “staged” to assess how malignant they are.
Now we have some useful terms, let’s get back to what happens when we’re in a position where we have to use these words about our pets:
First rule? Don’t panic. Get the facts. We’re in a position to know more about these diseases and the options to treat them than ever before. In fact, some of our treatments are more advanced than those in human medicine. For example, in 2007 we saw the release of the first vaccine in any species that was developed for treatment of a neoplastic disease. ONCEPT, the melanoma vaccine by Merial, underwent clinical trials and saw excellent results before being granted full licensure in 2010. According to the vaccine's website, when used in conjunction with surgery and/or radiation therapy to treat your dog’s local tumor cells, ONCEPT has been shown to significantly prolong the survival time for dogs with advanced stages of melanoma. The advancements don't end there. More recently, a drug that was originally developed and approved for the treatment of canine Grade II and III mast cell tumors, Palladia, has shown promise in treating several other kinds of previously hard-to-treat tumors, as well.
The tidal wave of veterinary specialization that has swelled up over the past ten to twenty years means that we now have dedicated oncologists for our pets that can help advise owners on the most up-to-date options for treatment of their pets. Having said that, more advanced care comes with a more advanced price tag. When you realize that chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery are often viable treatments for some forms of cancer, you can appreciate that costs stack up.
Cancer treatment is one of the areas where I think that people really see the value in their Petplan insurance. We’ve paid claims for all types of neoplasia including bone cancer, mast cell tumors, lymphoma and even brain tumors. While not all of these stories have happy endings, our policyholders are always grateful for the ability to do everything they can for their pets without having to worry about the financial implications of expensive and protracted veterinary care.
So, now you know some words about cancer and have some information about what we can do, hopefully you feel a little better. While you have a more hopeful feeling, and since it’s Pet Cancer Awareness Month, I encourage you to help support those dedicated to finding a cure for cancer and the pets that are affected by cancer in our lives.
Spread Awareness - Talk with your veterinarian and other pet owners about pet cancer. Join a support group. Learn to become an advocate for your pet. Volunteer at a local animal cancer center or to help with a fundraising event. Anything you can do to help will benefit the cause for a cure.
Spread the Wealth - There are a number of programs, institutions, and foundations set up to help contribute important funding to cancer research and pet care and I’m sure they would love your support (monetarily or otherwise). Currently, there are two canine cancer studies underway at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, our local vet school, focusing on bone cancer and lymphoma development in pets. I encourage you to visit your local vet school's website to see what they have in progress. For example, Colorado State University has an excellent dedicated cancer center with a "Ways to Give" page you might find helpful.
Likewise, Morris Animal Foundation's Canine Lifetime Health Project has a golden opportunity (quite literally) to learn how to prevent cancer and other diseases in their Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, which will enroll up to 3,000 Golden Retrievers and will last 10 to 14 years. Studies such as these can greatly benefit from your support and/or contributions, and may one day help to provide a healthier tomorrow for our best friends - and perhaps us, as well.