Getting a diagnosis of cancer in your pet is usually the last thing anyone wants to hear, yet it happens fairly frequently. Now that our pets routinely receive adequate nutrition, preventative care, and are more often kept supervised and under control we don’t tend to lose them at young ages to viral diseases, heartworm, malnutrition, and being run over by the tractor in the field. As a result they live long enough to develop the diseases more common in older animals, one of which is cancer.
Chemotherapy is often an option for treatment of cancers that are not confined to a single location or are systemic in nature. Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, is the most common type of cancer seen in dogs and cats. It is also one of the cancers that is most responsive to a variety of chemotheraputic protocols. I know that as soon as someone hears the word chemotherapy the first image that comes to mind is a miserably ill patient, losing all their hair, and bedridden for months at a time. Many people have personally experienced that sort of treatment either for themselves or alongside a loved one. The immediate reaction from most people is that they would never consider doing that to their pets.
I agree. Our goal with chemotherapy in our veterinary patients is to gain as much good quality life as possible. Unfortunately it is inevitable that every patient will come out of remission and will die from the disease eventually. After diagnosis, the average survival time of a patient with lymphoma without chemotherapy is about two months, but with chemotherapy it is about one year. It defeats the purpose if we extend quantity of life but make the quality of life miserable. With our veterinary patients that is not usually the way it works. I currently have several patients who have been treated for lymphoma with chemotherapy. Each of them would have had no hope of surviving to this day without treatment, yet each of them is currently living a completely normal happy life at this moment. None of them suffered any negative side effects from the treatment outside of some minor nausea after the first round of medication. In the rare cases that a patient cannot tolerate chemotherapy without becoming very ill we either switch to a different protocol or stop treatments altogether.
Many general practitioners can offer basic chemotheraputic protocols, and there are internal medicine specialists and even veterinary oncologists that offer more advanced and specialized treatments. Colorado State University in Ft. Collins has one of the most advanced veterinary cancer treatment centers in the world and their work on cancer in animals has helped pioneer techniques that are being used to save lives in human medicine as well.
Chemotherapy is not always the right option for every family and every patient. Factors such as cost, family situation, and concurrent conditions play a role in deciding which route to take. Just don’t automatically rule out the option due to fear that the treatment will ruin your pet’s quality of life. It is much more likely that it will improve quality and extend quantity of life dramatically instead.