Dispelling the Misconceptions Associated with Veterinary Oncology
Despite the similarities between cancers in humans and pets, the treatment process is often a very different experience. Maintaining a good quality of life while improving patient outcome is of utmost importance to veterinary oncologists. Five of the most common misconceptions encountered in veterinary oncology are discussed below:
Misconception #1: Cancer is not treatable in animals.
Truth: Many pets diagnosed with cancer have the potential of receiving treatments aimed at either addressing the tumor and/or supporting their quality of life. The duration of treatment benefit is dependent on many factors, including the type of the cancer, the stage of the cancer, the therapy used to treat the cancer, and the individual patient response and tolerance of the therapy used. Many animals with cancer now experience long-term survival, and this goal should not be overlooked, even if it is seen in a small proportion of animals with a specific cancer diagnosis.
Misconception #2: My pet will lose all of his/her fur.
Truth: While there are certain dog breeds and some cats that do experience loss of fur during chemotherapy, this relatively uncommon. It is more common in non-shedding dog breeds that require regular grooming (i.e. Poodles, Bichons). Loss of guard hairs and whiskers, as well as color changes in the skin and fur, can be noted in any dog or cat receiving chemotherapy. Regrowth will usually occur when chemotherapy is stopped. Animals treated with radiation therapy will often experience fur loss and color changes over their radiation field. We consider this as their “badge of courage.”
Misconception #3: My pet will be miserable during chemotherapy.
Truth: The image of the human cancer patient experiencing chemotherapy-related side effects is not our expectation in cats and dogs. In general, chemotherapy is well-tolerated in veterinary medicine. This is largely related to our goal to use protocols that maximize quality of life and the remarkable resilience of our pets.
Most pets do not experience any negative side effects from chemotherapy. However, mild and self-limiting decreases in appetite, energy, and overall demeanor are sometimes noted; and the most common time frame for these to occur is 3-7 days following treatment. Isolated episodes of vomiting and diarrhea can also be encountered. The risk for more significant side effects includes a 1:10 chance of vomiting and diarrhea characterized by > 3 episodes of vomiting in a 24 hour period or diarrhea that may be profuse or occasionally bloody in nature. A 1:100 chance of life- threatening complications, primarily associated with white blood cell suppression (“neutropenia”) and secondary infection (“sepsis”), can also occur. In addition to these more typical side effects, there are also more specific side effects that can occur with certain chemotherapy drugs or protocols.
Misconception #4: It will require thousands of dollars to treat my pet for cancer.
Truth: Cancer treatment (and other advanced veterinary care) can be expensive. However, an important responsibility of our team is to develop a list of treatment options that are financially acceptable for a particular family. These can include conventional chemotherapy or radiation therapy as well as palliative care. Alternatively, clinical trials and compassionate use programs may be available to offset the costs of care for patients who qualify. Our unique relationships with Animal Clinical Investigations and academic veterinary oncology groups provides access to many of these opportunities. Pet insurance and CareCredit are also options that can aid in payment.
Misconception # 5: My pet is old, is it worth it?
Truth: Cancer typically affects geriatric/senior companion animals; therefore, most of the information that we have regarding the efficacy and tolerability of the chemotherapy/radiation therapy protocols already takes into account the use of these treatments in older populations of animals. Concurrent illnesses (i.e. kidney, heart, liver disease) have to be assessed and considered while treatment options are being developed and discussed. Although it may not seem like a long period of time, providing even 1 additional year with a good quality of life for a pet is equivalent to providing an additional 7 years for a human.
More questions?! Join us Wednesday, June 17th at 7pm for a deeper discussion on common veterinary oncology misconceptions as part of our Client Education Series.
Dr. Mallett graduated from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. She completed a one year internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Florida Veterinary Specialists followed by a three year residency in medical oncology at the University of Georgia. Dr. Mallett is board-certified in medical oncology by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and is part of The Oncology Service at Friendship.
* Featured image courtesy of Cancer Vets Cancer Veterinary Centers.