Diagnosis: First Steps
If you have just found out that your dog has cancer, don’t give up hope. There are steps that you can begin taking today to help improve your canine companion’s chances of survival and maintain their quality of life.  The choices you have to make will not always be easy, and there will be bumps along the way.  But with courage and dedication, you can give your devoted friend a fighting chance against this disease.

Step 1: Take a Deep Breath

It's hard not to feel a strong sense of panic when you find out that your faithful companion and friend has been diagnosed with cancer.  Despite improvements in treatment options for humans and animals, cancer arguably remains the most frightening word in the English language.  And, it doesn’t matter if the dog is two years old or fourteen – no dedicated pet owner ever wants to face their companion’s mortality.  When forced to deal with a cancer diagnosis, it is normal to feel fear, anger, confusion, and often, some guilt.

Give yourself the chance to deal with these emotions (preferably out of sight of your dog).  Cry, scream, rant, punch a pillow or do whatever you need to do to vent.  Then, take a deep breath and prepare your mind for battle.  Your dog will need every ounce of your strength and courage as you begin the journey through cancer together.

Step 2: Educate Yourself

There are many types of cancer that affect our canine companions, although lymphoma is the form that I and many other pet owners are most familiar with, as it is one of the most common.  For each type of cancer there are different symptoms, treatments and expected outcomes.  Make no mistake…knowledge IS power when it comes to learning about your dog’s particular type of cancer.  Not only will educating yourself about cancer help to relieve it of some of its mystery, which just adds to the anxiety, but it also will help you in assembling your treatment team and to ensure that you know what questions to ask throughout the treatment process.  It can also be helpful in creating realistic expectations about treatment side effects and life expectancy, although it is very important to remember that every dog is different and may respond to treatment differently.  By being an educated pet owner, you will feel a greater sense of control over the situation and be able to have better judgment when it comes time to make the decisions involved in your dog’s cancer treatment.

Step 3: Assemble a Strong Team

Now, more than ever, it’s important that you assemble a strong team to support you and your dog during this battle against cancer.  Ideally, this team will consist of your regular veterinarian, who is most familiar with your dog’s medical history, a veterinary oncologist, who specializes in treating cancer in animals, and a holistic veterinarian, who can provide important information about nutrition, supplements and other alternative treatments that may be beneficial for your dog.  Another key component of your team should be close friends, family or other pet owners who have experienced canine cancer.  You’ll find their emotional support, encouragement and understanding to be critical along the way.  Click on the following links to find a list of
veterinary schools, oncologists and holistic vets in your area.

No matter who is on your cancer treatment team, it is important that you trust the people you’re working with and that they are willing to listen to your concerns and answer any and all questions that you have.  It is also important to make sure that information is shared between all parties so everyone on your team is aware of your dog’s most current medical information, including any secondary conditions, or medications or supplements that your dog is taking.  You should also make sure that you are working with professionals who value your opinions and who support your decisions regarding treatment.  Ultimately, your dog is counting on you to make decisions that are in her best interest.  Now is not the time to passively accept whatever you are told, or to submit to any tests without question.  You have an obligation to your companion to be an active part of the cancer treatment team.

Step 4: Modify Diet & Environment

Studies have shown that cancer pups do best on a diet that is low in carbohydrates, high in Omega 3 fatty acids (such as fish oil) and with moderate levels of protein.  Many opinions can be found about the best way to achieve this diet.  You’ll find suggestions for raw diets, home cooked, prescription and commercial.  Which one is best?  It really depends on your philosophy, budget, time constraints and…your dog.

For Georgia, we used a combination of Hills N/D prescription canned food and organic vegetables.  A few times a week, for variety, we would make a home cooked meal with high-quality protein mixed with vegetables.  We also used supplements for her as recommended by our holistic vet, which included fish oil capsules, digestive enzymes, Seacure fish protein and some other vitamins and supplements specifically designed to meet her needs.  If you prefer a dry commercial diet, Innova Evo is a good choice as it is low in carbohydrates and is made from quality ingredients.

While your dog is battling cancer, it is especially important to protect them from exposure to chemicals as much as possible.  While I believe this is important to do throughout their life, and tend to believe the theories that suggest a link between common lawn and household chemicals and the increased incidence of canine cancer, it becomes essential after they have been diagnosed with cancer.  Every ounce of your dog’s energy should be devoted to fighting the cancer in her body.  Chemicals distract the body from this natural healing process and weaken the body’s defenses.  Below is a list of ways that you can begin the process of detoxifying your dog’s environment.

Tips for Detoxifying Your Dog's Life

• Only give your dog filtered water, if you’re not already.

• Do NOT allow your dog to receive any vaccinations while being treated for cancer.

• Do not use pesticides of fertilizers on your lawn.

• ALWAYS wipe your dog’s paws off after being outside to prevent them from spreading or licking off any chemical residue from sidewalks, streets and grassy areas.

• Provide organic meats and vegetables whenever possible.

• Eliminate or reduce your dog’s exposure to flea and tick medications.  Choose a natural alternative if possible.

• Do not use harsh chemicals anywhere in your home where your dog may come into contact.  This includes floor cleaners, carpet deodorizers or furniture polish.  Choose natural solutions if possible.  If you wouldn’t want your newborn baby coming into contact with the chemical, then you probably shouldn’t be using it in places where your dog has access.

Step 5:  Live in the Moment

One of the most amazing characteristics of dogs is their ability to live fully in the present moment, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.  Dogs don’t have the burden of knowing that they have cancer or that they may someday die.  We can take a lesson from our dogs by using the experience of cancer to learn how to cherish the present and let go of what cannot be changed in the past and what is uncertain in the future.

As any dog owner can attest to, dogs have a special ability to know exactly how we are feeling without the benefit of verbal communication.  They can sense our moods, read our body language and smell minute changes in our body chemistry with uncanny accuracy.  As a result, it is very important that we recognize this and make every effort not to burden our companions with our human fears and anxieties while they are battling cancer.  No matter how sad, frightened or frustrated you may feel, make every effort to put these emotions aside when in the presence of your dog.  They need every ounce of positive, loving energy from you while in this fight against cancer, and you owe it to them to give them this small gift.  Will you always succeed?  No. It can be easy to be overwhelmed with sadness or preemptive grief at times.  But, you can do your very best to remain positive and hopeful around your dog as often as possible.

It may seem hard at first, but I promise, it is one of the things you will be most grateful for months or years down the road.  There will always come a time for tears and grief, but until that day comes, cherish each and every moment with your special canine companion.  Celebrate the small victories and create joyful memories.  And when doubt does start creeping in, just remind yourself “Today is Not the Day.”

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However you decide to treat your dog's cancer, there are three things to always remember:

• You know your dog best, so when in doubt, trust your instincts.

• In the end, there are no right or wrong decisions.

• Your primary responsibility to your dog is to provide a good quality of life.


"Help! I can't find an oncologist!"

If you do not have a veterinary oncologist in your area, it doesn’t mean that your dog can’t still get quality treatment.  Unfortunately, veterinary oncologists are not available in many areas.  In fact, when Georgia was diagnosed with lymphoma, the nearest veterinary oncologist was at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Veterinary Medicine, more than an hour away from our home.  Although this isn’t that far for an occasional trip, when considering that we would need to go there at least once a week for several weeks, and every other week for several months after, we quickly realized that treatment at UW-Madison was not a realistic option given that both my husband and I work full-time.

Even if you don't have an oncologist near you, you still have options.  Depending on the type of cancer your dog has, your primary vet may be able to begin treatment or perform surgery as needed.  This is especially true in the case of lymphoma, as the protocol has become very standardized, and it is generally important to begin chemotherapy treatment as quickly as possible if this is the route you choose to go.  You can always continue your search for a specialist, without necessarily having to delay treatment.

The next best option to a veterinary oncologist would usually be an Internal Medicine specialist.  These veterinary specialists are usually easier to find than an oncologist, and are able to administer chemotherapy and oversee cancer treatment, although they obviously do not specialize in canine cancer.  To locate a veterinary specialist, CLICK HERE.

In either of these cases, you should ask if the primary vet or specialist regularly consults with an oncologist for their cancer patients.  If the answer is no, then I would seek the help of another doctor.  More often, you will find that they do consult with an oncologist, and if so, you may want to find out what school they graduated from, what their level of experience is, and any other information that may be relevant to assure you that your dog is receiving the best possible care.

 This website is not intended to replace the advice of a veterinary professional, and is for informational purposes only. Please seek the advice of your veterinarian or a veterinary specialist before giving your dog any supplements or pursuing any alternative cancer therapies. 

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