November is Pet Cancer Awareness Month
By: Dr. Amanda Landis-Hanna
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Many of us think of November as a time to show gratitude, and to be thankful for friends, family, and health. But November is also Pet Cancer Awareness Month, and a time to learn more about Pet Cancer and how it can impact an affected pet. In this context, every day with a pet is a blessing, and an opportunity for us to screen our pets for health problems.
According to Dr. Susan Ettinger, cancer affects 1 out of every 4 dogs and cats in their lifetime. Dr. Ettinger is a veterinary oncologist, a Board-certified doctor who specializes in seeing and treating animal cancers. She developed a program called “See Something, Say Something.” The program is designed to teach pet parents to seek veterinary attention for any lumps or bumps that are noticed on the pet, anything larger than the size of a pencil eraser. At that time, the veterinarian can run a test called aspiration, where they suck a few cells out with a needle, and examine the cell type with a microscope. This test can determine what cells are present, and screen for cancerous or abnormal cells.
If the aspirate shows a suspect abnormality, a biopsy is generally the next step. Aspiration is different from biopsy, often with the level of invasiveness that is required. With an aspiration, a needle is inserted into a growth. With a biopsy, the growth (or part of the growth) is cut out. Generally, a patient requires sedation or anesthesia for a biopsy, since removing a section of tissue is painful, and could bleed or become infected. Biopsies are often considered a general surgery, and may have a 7-14 day recovery time (depending on the size and location of the growth). A larger sample of tissue is collected with a biopsy, so a biopsy is more definitive, and can help determine if all cancerous cells were removed. In some cases, biopsy is curative of a cancerous growth.
If biopsy does not remove all cancerous cells, or if the cancer has spread (metastasis), additional treatment may be required. A number of treatment options are available for cancer, and vary largely depending on the type of cancer and it’s location on the body. Some treatment types include:
- Chemotherapy: Medication is given to kill cancer cells. Dogs rarely lose hair, but are at risk for secondary infections (in some cases).
- Radiation: Electromagnetic waves are directed at the tumor, to kill cancer cells. Patients must be sedated for radiation therapy, to minimize motion.
- Palliative: Treatment is offered to help keep the pet comfortable and slow growth of the cancer, but not cure it outright. This treatment may be done with hospice care.
- Holistic: Nutrition, herbs, and Eastern medicine may be used to help increase quality of life and treat tumors.
According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, cancer accounts for about 50% of deaths in dogs over 10 years old, every year. Additionally, cancer can grow very rapidly in dogs, often going unnoticed due to fur or activity. Often a dog’s annual (or biannual) examination may be the only screening she gets for cancer.
The National Canine Cancer Foundation makes the following recommendation: “If your pet is getting older, it is a good idea to routinely examine the body by stroking and petting and going over the entire body.” Dr. Ettinger’s work also supports this habit, as earlier detection leads to improved outcomes during cancer treatment. And NCCF reminds us that “…regular grooming sessions will serve two purposes: detecting "anything out of ordinary" as well as deepening the bond between you and your aging pet.”
Many of us have been touched by cancer, directly or indirectly. My dogs Gus and Sam both developed cancer that led to their eventual euthanasia’s. But I am grateful for the time I had with them, and grateful for the time I now have with Sophie. I am grateful for the work of Dr. Ettinger and NCCF to find better treatments, and eventual cures, for cancer.
Who, and what, are you grateful for?