The diagnosis of cancer in your pet is very scary and upsetting. However, it is not necessarily a death sentence for your four-legged friend. Unfortunately cancer is a common disease in dogs and cats, and seen more often in older animals.
With the advancement of veterinary medicine, the life span of pets has become longer. Therefore we see more cancer cases. Although it sounds frightening, a better way to look at cancer should be as with any other incurable chronic disease in which our goal of treatment is control of the disease and to prolong life with good quality.
Once cancer is suspected, the diagnosis is confirmed with tissue sampling and staging of the disease. The goal of staging is to assess the extent of the cancer, which allows the vet to create a treatment plan and assess the prognosis. The staging usually includes blood and urine testing, radiographs and ultrasound.
Some cancers, which are localized, can be managed and even cured by surgical removal. Other cases need adjunctive chemotherapy treatments after surgery or as the primary treatment.
Chemotherapy can sound very intimidating, but it is different than what you know from the human field. The reason for that is that in veterinary medicine we use the same chemotherapy drugs that are used in humans, but due to ethics aspects the dose is much lower, and we give fewer drugs at one time, therefore there are less side effects. The goal of chemotherapy in veterinary medicine is not to cure the cancer, but to manage it with a good quality of life and hence the dosage difference.
Only 25% of the treated animals will have mild side effects, such as vomiting and diarrhea. These side affects are managed and the animal is comfortable. Most pets do not experience hair loss, however some breeds can. These signs are merely cosmetic side effects, do not necessarily happen and resolve once treatment is completed. Less than 5% of those treated will have more severe side effects (fever, lethargy, infections), but these can be turned around after 24-72 hours of supportive care. Most of the chemotherapy patients are outpatients. If there are any gastrointestinal side effects they usually occur 1-3 days after the treatment. Another possible side effect is low white blood cell count, which usually occur 7-10 days after the treatment. For this reason we monitor with blood tests during and after chemotherapy.
In general chemotherapy is well tolerated by animals, and allows them a good quality of life, and an extended life span.