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Cancer is Not a Death Sentence


We are all taught from very early on in veterinary school, that there is no such thing as a “cure” to most, if not all cancers. Oncologists describe tumor therapy in terms like “survival time”, with graphs that imply if you don’t treat, your patient will die in “x” days, and if you do treat, your patient will die in “y” days. The death part, of course, being inevitable. Cancer treatment, then, is simply delaying inevitable death. This is a logical certainty. And yet… not the whole story.

Veterinarians, for the most part, maximize the positive experience pet owners have with their furry family members. That’s our job. We try to get patients “over” their illnesses as quickly as possible, operating under the assumption that illness-free days are optimal days, and days “suffering” through less than optimal health should be minimized or eliminated entirely if possible.

What happens in real life, however, is that some clients thrive in challenging times. Some clients, and I bet you can list three or four friends right now off the top of your head (possibly one of them looking back at you in the mirror), didn’t truly show their true colors until their pet’s life was threatened, or developed some chronic illness. Then, when death loomed large, these people didn’t roll over and give up, as you might have expected.

Instead, when their pet got sick, something magical happened.

Instead of fearing death, these people worked to maximize their pet’s good quality of life.

Their entire perspective changed, from avoiding pain altogether, to enjoying what pain free time there was. Suffering through a shared trauma has a funny way of binding people and pets together, in ways that simply don’t happen when everybody is healthy.

What’s funny if you really think about it, is that we’re all dying from the day we’re born. We all like to pretend this isn’t true in the moment, and we all like to think Fido and Fifi have no concept of their impending doom. That’s one of the things we love best about pets – they live every day as it comes, thinking nothing of the future. We see pets every day who lose a limb, and just go on walking as best they can. Blind dog? Functions just as well as ever, only maybe a little slower. No teeth? Eats fine.

Every veterinarian has cried, euthanizing an old dog belonging to an old person, who we know is near death themselves. There’s something about reminding someone that we’re all dying, that breaks a veterinarian’s heart. But really, if you think about it, perhaps being bringers of death gives veterinarians a fairly unique opportunity to help people learn how to live.

If you’re a veterinarian reading this, here is my challenge to you, as it was presented by my new friend, Dr. Sue Ettinger, whom you might know as @DrSueCancerVet on Twitter or Facebook, and author of the book “The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity”.

The next time you’re faced with a pet who has a clearly devastating, life threatening illness, before you jump to euthanasia as the only viable option to eliminate pain, have a talk with your owner. Tell them options for palliation might exist, and let them tell you, without putting words in their mouth, how they feel about end-of-life. Their strength and resolve to enjoy what little time you can give them together, might surprise you.

If you think about it, everybody’s chance of survival is zero percent. Does that mean we should all just roll over and die? Or, do we do our best to enjoy what little time we’re given?

Give each of your clients, and your patients, the option to enjoy their life as it is, not as we would like it to be, and you might be surprised just how far some people will go to enjoy that one last year, or month, or week, or day, or hour, with their pet.

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. Dr. Sue really changed my view on cancer and the way to go about it. Until then I always felt that if my dog had cancer I would not want to put them through any treatments. Today I know better. If my dog ever does get cancer, though, we are going to NY to see Dr. Sue.

  2. Great article. I was on a dog forum recently and all most got shutdown by the users just because I mentioned chemotherapy and other options for dogs. So often people say to me I would never give my dog chemotherapy and that is often due to a previous experience. When the conversation progresses further you are often told their vet gave chemotherapy and the dog was really sick. More talk to find out they had no clue what cancer their dog had, often diagnosis by visual thrown in with breed type, no pathology or radiology and they wonder why the dog might not have coped well. Chemotherapy if managed properly with the oncologists where all the correct testing is done does give both good results and good quality of life which is the important part. So many other treatments can also be offered to give a good outcome for our dogs. Sadly it seems it is often the bad stories (which were likely messed up to start with) that gets around and puts off a lot of people. The other thing is you can always stop the treatment if you are not happy with the results. Its a shame sometimes people dont get all the facts first before they make sweeping generalisations on chemo and other cancer treatments. Heaven forbid if we stop treating our dogs for other diseases (which can often potentially have adverse side effects). Do we not treat our dogs with arthritis without giving whatever options are available a try? Sometimes it seems to be a big fear of cancer and it is harder to take in the information so good choices are made. My dog had 4.5yrs of a great life after chemotherapy and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

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