Many people struggle with the decision to pursue treatment once their pet has been diagnosed with cancer and question why someone would “put their animal through that?” The simplest answer is because we can and do so with minimal side effects. Successful treatment can improve the quality of life of our senior pets and help them live longer so why not treat something that is treatable? I’m clearly biased when answering this question but consider the reason I am in this profession as a possible argument. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a veterinarian. On occasion, I wanted to also be a lawyer or a teacher but always a veterinarian at the same time. When you start veterinary school, you know very little about the “real world of medicine” and in that world, puppies and kittens get older and get diseases that come with age. Becoming a veterinarian was the only possible profession for me but being a veterinary oncologist developed over time and was a choice I made knowing what the ultimate outcome for most of my patients would be. As we go through the process of training to become a specialist, you learn that bad things happen to good pets, and someone needs to fight for them. Once you begin to see that all animals that live long enough, develop one or more chronic diseases, cancer being one of them, it becomes apparent that in most cases, where appropriate therapy is instituted, animals can have a great quality of life. Why treat diabetes, heart disease, and renal failure and NOT treat cancer? ANY disease that requires chronic medical management will have some degree of side effects from the therapy and there will be the occasional bad day. When cancer is treated by a trained professional, side effects can be minimized, symptoms can be controlled and, in most cases, cancer patients enjoy the same if not better quality of life than the many other pets with diseases that sound less scary. That is the main goal of veterinary oncology. We believe in quality of life over quantity and if the treatment is worse than the disease or there is no effective treatment, we do the best we can to palliate symptoms to make them more comfortable.
The field of veterinary medicine is growing, and new research has provided us with new treatments that have improved the prognosis for many cancers. Ten years ago, fewer than 10% of dogs diagnosed with oral melanoma lived a year or longer. Now, there is a vaccine designed to help a dog’s immune system fight this cancer and has dramatically improved survival times. It is common now to see most dogs live at least a year following this diagnosis. Cancer does not always mean a death sentence or having a pet suffer through chemotherapy. Knowledge is power and knowing what options you have before deciding to treat or not treat any chronic disease will help you make an educated decision. I decided to help pets with cancer because they deserve the same chance as pets with heart disease or diabetes. I want them to live as well as possible while they live longer lives so that they can have more time with their pet parents.
Avenelle Turner, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology)
West Texas Veterinary Specialists