I am amazed at the completely opposite responses people have when I tell them I am a veterinary oncologist versus when I tell them I am a veterinarian. If I answer the question of "What is it that you do for a living?" with, "I’m a vet," this is invariably met with an enthusiastic smile and phrases such as, "That’s so cute!" or "How nice! You must love animals!"
However, if I answer by saying, "I’m a veterinary oncologist," the response is typically a sympathetic and disheartened, "Oh," which is usually followed by the phrase, "That must be SO depressing!"
I’ve developed a somewhat thick skin after hearing those comments over and over. It’s not as though I can’t understand where people are coming from. In fact, when I was an eager veterinary student, I remember repeatedly telling the resident that was supervising me during my oncology rotation, "I would NEVER want to be an oncologist, it’s just too depressing."
Fortunately, during my internship year, I had the opportunity to work with a wonderful medical oncologist and I met some very inspiring cancer patients. My experiences during that year allowed me to see that the role of a veterinary oncologist was not to act as the "bearer of bad news" or one who continually euthanizes animals; rather, I began to see how it is that veterinary oncologists act to provide pet owners with hope and optimism during what could easily be a very confusing and desolate time. Oncologists can help people understand their pets’ diagnoses and can help them to make decisions about what the best plan of action for their pets would be.
The oncologist typically comes into the picture after an owner has already heard the overwhelming news that their pet has cancer. In that respect, in my opinion, the worst part is finished before I even step into the exam room. As an oncologist, it is my job to educate owners about their pets' disease and discuss the available diagnostic and treatment options, and most importantly, to act as the pet’s best advocate in an extremely emotionally driven time period, when an owner may be unable to do so on his or her own.
When an owner learns that a beloved family pet has cancer, it can be absolutely devastating news. Many times they are conflicted regarding pursuing any definitive care out of fear that the treatments will make their animal sick or that the pet’s time spent under the care of an oncologist will be "miserable." Often they may have some sort of personal experience with cancer. They may know a relative or friend who underwent radiation therapy or chemotherapy, or they may have even undergone anti-cancer treatment themselves.
At the same time, nearly all the owners I meet will want the same thing for their pets: to preserve a good quality of life for as long as possible by causing as little impact on their day-to-day activities as possible. It’s not an easy task to try and convince owners that I couldn’t do what I do for a living if I made animals sick day after day, but that is the absolute truth. And in many cases, we are able to accomplish their goals for keeping their pets happy while successfully managing their cancer as more of a chronic disease.
If you observed the patients coming into our hospital each day for their chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments, you would find that they are among the happiest and healthiest pets in the waiting room. They are the dogs that are barking incessantly and jumping up and down off the chairs. They are the cats that are meowing and purring and rolling around in their carriers. In fact, an inside joke on our oncology service is how common it is for to owners say, "Fluffy acts like there’s nothing wrong!" as if they are almost disappointed that their pets aren’t showing more adverse signs from their treatments!
I’ve heard human cancer patients say it’s simply an issue of mind over matter regarding their description of how they successfully cope with their diagnoses and treatments, but the more I work as a veterinary oncologist, the more I think the animals have it right with the old adage, "Wag more and bark less." Taking a cue from the animals I see each and every other day, I think this really isn’t a bad philosophy to have for life in general.
So, when it comes down to it, despite the negative barks I may hear about my chosen career, I am extremely proud to be a veterinary oncologist and I’ll continue to wag away in the clinic with my happy cancer patients each and every day I go to work. I bet there aren’t many people out there who can say the same for themselves.
Dr. Joanne Intile