Part 1: Understanding Cancer and Getting Help
Cancer causes almost half of the deaths of pets over 10 years of age —according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is almost the same rate of cancer seen in human. Pets are living longer thanks to the advancements in veterinary care and the compromise of pet parents to provide adequate preventive health care. Longer pet lives leads to an increased probability of cancer, since this disease is often the result of the normal aging process experienced by all living organisms. Young pets can also suffer from cancer, in which case, genetic factors and breed predisposition play an important role.
What is cancer?
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) defines cancer as a collection of related diseases in which, some of the body’s cells begin to divide without stopping and spread into surrounding tissues. Cancer can develop in almost any organ body.
In a normal animal, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or become damaged, they die, and new cells take their place. However, when cancer develops, cells start dividing abnormally and uncontrollably. These abnormal cells can form growths called tumors.
Tumors can be benign or malignant. Cancerous tumors are malignant, which means that they can spread into, or invade, nearby tissues. On the other hand, benign tumors do not spread into, or invade, nearby tissues. However, benign tumors can sometimes be quite large. When removed, benign tumors usually don’t grow back, whereas malignant tumors sometimes do.
A primary tumor is one that develops at a certain organ, while a metastatic tumor is one that detaches from a primary site and invades other tissues or organs.
What types of cancer affect dogs and cats?
Cancer can be classified by site of origin. For example, breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, oral cancer, brain cancer etc. Another common cancer classification is based on the tissue type that is affected. For example, a tumor of the lymph nodes is called lymphoma. Some of the most common cancers in pets are:
• Hemangiosarcoma. Hemangiosarcoma is a tumor that develops from the endothelial cells that line blood vessels. Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds have a higher incidence of hemangiosarcoma. This tumor frequently affects the spleen, heart, liver and skin. Usually, signs are only seen late in the disease when the dog suffers from internal bleeding due to the tumor rupturing.
• Lymphoma. A lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. About 20 percent of all canine cancers are lymphomas. These solid tumors can affect lymph nodes at specific sites like stomach, brain, intestines etc. Dogs are 2 to 5 times more likely to develop lymphoma than people. This tumor can affect any breed of dog at any age. However, some breeds, such as the Golden Retriever, are more likely to be affected.
• Mammary Carcinoma. Unspayed female dogs are at high risk of developing tumors of the mammary glands. At time of diagnosis, these tumors have usually spread to other organs such as the lungs, lymph nodes and bones. Treatment usually involves surgical removal of one or more mammary glands, and chemotherapy when the tumor has spread to other areas.
• Mast Cell Tumor. Mast cells are immune cells found throughout the body. Mast cell tumors are usually found on the skin and may be detected by a sudden growth or swelling. Boxers and bulldogs have a higher incidence of mast cell tumors compared to other dog breeds.
• Melanoma. This is a tumor of pigmented or dark skin cells that can be found anywhere on the dog’s body. Dogs with dark skin or hair coats (e.g. Doberman Pinscher) are more frequently diagnosed with melanoma. When located in the mouth, foot or toes, melanomas have a worse outcome or prognosis. Treatment recommendations for melanoma included surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
• Osteosarcoma. This is the most common type of primary bone tumor in the dog. Osteosarcoma is usually associated with giant dog breeds. The Great Danes are 200 times more likely than toy breeds to be affected by osteosarcoma. Osteosarcoma is a very aggressive and rapidly spreading tumor, for this reason, the recommended treatment is usually an amputation surgery, followed by chemotherapy.
• Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinomas are usually seen in the skin and inside the mouths of dogs and cats. Tumors on the skin are often detected early and have a better outcome than tumors inside the mouth, which can be difficult to detect and treat. Oral squamous cell carcinomas are aggressive malignant tumors and less than 10% of the diagnosed dogs survive to one year after diagnosis.
What are some of the symptoms of cancer in dogs?
• A wound that doesn’t heal
• Abnormal bleeding
• Behavioral changes
• Lump or a bump
Are there treatments for pet cancer?
According to the FDA, until very recently, the only drugs available to treat cancer in animals were those approved for use in humans. But in the last few years, new treatments meant specifically for animals, have been introduced to the pharmaceutical market.
What should I do if my dog or cat has cancer?
Knowing that our pet has cancer is one of the worst things that could happen to a pet parent. Most of us feel a sense of loss and we start thinking about how our lives will be without our beloved companion.
If your pet has been diagnosed with cancer it is important to remember that this is not the end. Depending on what type of cancer your pet has been diagnosed with, your pet’s age, the time of the diagnosis (e.g. early on the disease process) and other factors, your pet may have months or years of life to spend with you. As soon as you know the diagnosis, it is important to learn as much as you can about the type of cancer that your dog has, and to understand the treatment options and prognosis (the medical outcome) for your pet.
A good communication with your pet’s veterinarian is essential. He or she will be able to explain you the treatment options and the severity of your pet’s case. Once you are well informed you should start making a plan for your pet and your family. This plan should include which type of treatment, if any, you will purse and how you and your family will deal with the possibility of losing one of your members.
There is no definite answer as to which treatment option is best or when we should start considering euthanasia—each case is different. On the next articles we will explore the treatment options for pets with cancer, as well as, how to provide the best possible end of life care for our pet.
Not everyone deals with loss in the same way, but for most of us, having a support network makes the process easier. This network can include family member, friends and your pet’s veterinarian. There are online support groups for the parent of pets diagnosed with cancer, such as:
The Canine Cancer Community
Caninecancer.com is a website devoted to provide cancer information to dog parents, and they create a Facebook group where people with dogs who have or had cancer can communicate with each other.
Help Your Dog Fight Cancer Support Group
This support group aims at helping pet parents understand cancer through the sharing of medical information. Members share the information that they have gathered from research or from personal experience.
Georgia’s Legacy Canine Cancer Resource Support Group
This website has a Facebook group where pet owners share their experiences, battles and success stories of dogs who have faced overwhelming odds and beaten cancer.
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