The initial shock of hearing the diagnosis of cancer in your pet has subsided, but your fear may still be at the forefront. Yes, cancer can be scary, but medical advances in surgical, medical, and radiation oncology have made it so that cancer is no longer a death sentence for pets. To help ease your fears, you will need more information, which means making a list of questions for your veterinarian. Veterinary oncologist Dr. Joanne Intile shares the five most common questions she gets from owners.
The short answer to this question in many cases is, “We don’t know.” Cancer results from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There are breed predispositions to certain tumor types, and there are also heritable forms of cancers that result from mutations in sperm and egg cells. The majority of genetic alterations leading to cancer occur because of spontaneous mutations, which may come about as a result of chronic exposure to known cancer-causing substances like sunlight or chemicals. It is, however, very important to recognize how difficult it is to prove causality when it comes to tumor development and environmental factors.
Though tumor cells can spread into the bloodstream during surgical manipulation, the ability of these cells to actually take up residence within a distant anatomical site and grow into new tumors is poor. Fortunately, most circulating tumor cells are rapidly destroyed by the pet’s immune system.
Approximately 25 percent of all animals receiving chemotherapy will experience some sort of side effect, generally mild and self-limiting gastrointestinal upset and/or lethargy during the first few days after treatment. If side effects should occur, they are usually well controlled using over the counter or prescription medications. If a patient experiences serious side effects, the dose of chemotherapy is reduced to avoid similar complications in the future. In general, the quality of life for patients receiving chemotherapy is excellent.
Every precaution is made to be sure that patients are healthy enough to undergo treatment prior to instituting therapy. Preliminary tests will ideally allow us to know everything about a cancer patient from nose to tail before starting treatment, and can help us better predict outcomes, side effects, and even tailor the treatment plans. The age of the patient typically does not factor in nearly as much as their overall health status.
It is generally considered safe for the animal to interact with all family members. However, depending on the chemotherapy drug(s) the pet is receiving, there may be certain times after a treatment when the pet is more vulnerable to picking up an infection, so precautions may be necessary during a very specified time period. In addition, we recommend that owners wear non-powdered latex or nitrile gloves when handling chemotherapy drugs and that the person handling the drugs washes their hands afterwards. Gloves should also be worn when handling an animal’s feces, litter, vomit, etc., since metabolites of chemotherapy drugs are present in urine and/or feces for up to 72 hours.