When Both Pets and Their Owners Are Battling Cancer

Joanne Lynn Intile, DVM, MS, DACVIM
December 23, 2015
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A surprisingly large number of owners of the pets I see with cancer are cancer survivors themselves. Aside from how unusual I find it when people are willing to share their personal medical histories with me, I usually also feel a particular pang of sadness for their situation.

My expertise lies in diagnosing and treating cancer in animals. Despite my credentials and my experience discussing extremely complicated and highly emotional disease processes in animals, I lack the comparable skills necessary to have a similar conversation regarding aspects of human oncology.

Perhaps the reason I see so many simultaneous diagnoses of cancer in human/animal pairs is because the owners are biased. Individuals who have faced a cancer diagnosis themselves could be more likely to pursue an oncology consultation for their own pets.

A willingness to pursue an appointment with a veterinary oncologist doesn’t equal a guaranteed decision to purse treatment. I meet many owners who have endured cancer treatment themselves and are subsequently vehemently opposed to pursuing similar options for their own animals. They are certain there will be severe side effects and an imminent decline in quality of life, and do not appreciate the potential benefit. Their goal in meeting me is to garner support for their decision, despite any assurance I can provide that the goals in veterinary oncology are very different from those on the human side.

Other owners possess remarkable optimism. They comprehend the risks of treatment but understand that those possibilities are rare in companion animals. They successfully set aside their own negative experiences with cancer with the goal of prolonging a good quality of life for their pets.

Occasionally I encounter cancer survivors who possess a deeper motivation to treat their pets. Individuals who not only draw parallels between their pet’s diagnosis and their own, but push further to pursue all available aggressive avenues of treatment, because as long as their pet is beating cancer, they are as well.

To them, their pet’s battle represents an intimate connection to their own diagnosis. The animal’s ability to endure its diagnosis and survive is intimately associated with their owner’s perception of (and subsequent fight against) their own mortality.

I’m here to expose this as an unfair burden for a dog or cat to bear. Connecting one’s own survival to that of their pet’s is a concept contrived from emotion, not science. Despite it being logically unpalatable, I can appreciate the thought process.

What bothers me most about this ideology is that it contradicts so much of what I’m most passionate about: educating people that a diagnosis of cancer in a pet is not the same as for a person.

Yes, similarities exist on a molecular level between human and animal cancers. We frequently, and appropriately, use animals as models for human disease. However, the emotional, financial, and overall consequences of the diagnosis are varied between the two species.

Our companion animals do not understand cancer; they do not fear the word, nor do they wish to fight against it. They live in the moment, exist for the here and now, and plan for nothing in the future. Their worry about survival is primitive, not existential.

As such, my responsibility as a veterinary oncologist is to provide owners with options to help their pets live longer, happier, and good quality lives with cancer. To adequately do so, I must accept a lower cure rate from my treatment plans and a more conservative approach to their disease. If longer survival is the outcome of my plan, I am happy. But I am happiest when an owner considers the time spent following their pet’s diagnosis of cancer as stellar, rather than simply being numerically prolonged.

It’s virtually impossible for an owner to be able to completely remove the bias of personal experience with cancer when considering how to approach his or her own pet facing a similar diagnosis. Experience is what allows them to interpret their challenge in a context that makes sense to them.

Experience also affords me the vantage point of urging an owner to keep their own diagnosis of cancer separate from their pet’s, and remember the many happier connections they have to their existence.

Dr. Joanne Intile