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Few things in life are more stressful than a diagnosis of cancer. Coming to terms with the idea that your healthy and happy pet is suddenly ill can be very difficult. Life changes quickly and you may feel overwhelmed. As a veterinarian who has counseled many families through this difficult time, I offer some steps to help guide you through the journey.
During the initial time of diagnosis you may feel confused by test results and complicated medical terms. Learning about the type of cancer your pet has may help you feel confident in making choices for your pet. Not every cancer is an immediate death sentence. There are many different types of cancer and they behave differently in the body. Some cancers are slow growing whereas others spread rapidly to other organs.
I have seen some pets with small, benign fatty tumors that have lived a normal life span beyond the initial prognosis. On the other hand, my own family’s golden retriever had a rare and aggressive liver cancer that spread swiftly throughout his body. I still shudder to remember the heart-wrenching moment I read the biopsy report; it felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. He was only 7 years old and it was so unexpected that he would be diagnosed with such a nasty cancer. His regular checkup and blood tests had been normal the prior month and I was dumbfounded. He was immediately hospitalized at a veterinary referral center but still deteriorated rapidly despite our best efforts. He went from diagnosis to humane euthanasia within weeks because of the type of cancer he had. Which cancer your pet has makes a huge difference when it comes to making informed decisions.
Once there is a diagnosis, the next step is to come up with a treatment plan. This process involves your veterinarian and/or a referral to a veterinary oncologist. Medical advances have provided us with several different options for treating cancer. A treatment plan may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, or a combination of these. Aside from the traditional options, alternative medicine, nutritional therapy, or appropriate clinical research trials may also be considered.
Available treatments depend on where you are located. Large hospitals and veterinary schools typically offer a wider range of treatment options compared to a rural or small clinic. Discuss the prognosis with your veterinarian to decide what the chances of success are with each treatment option. You will want to know if the goal is a cure, remission, or to offer palliative care for your pet. Sometimes in cases with a poor prognosis, palliative care is a compassionate alternative to aggressive treatment.
Another consideration is the financial commitment of each type of treatment. If you have pet insurance, this would be a time to check policy coverage to see what is included. Financing through credit companies may be an option as well.
As you move through the logistics of veterinary visits, treatments and caregiving, it is important to deal with your own emotions as they arise. A health crisis in your pet can lead to shock, anger, grief, or even anxiety and depression. It is understandable and quite common to be feeling these difficult emotions. You are not alone and should not expect yourself to weather the challenges without support. Reach out to family and friends in real life or online. Once you reveal the situation, you may find many people rallying around you with similar experiences and encouragement.
A client once described to me her utter surprise and gratitude when neighbors dropped off meals upon learning of her cat's health problems. She was going to the hospital frequently and had her hands full. Caring people came together to bring food, but also to bring hope during a difficult time. She said it was the best-tasting lasagna she's ever had, probably because it was made with love! Another place for comfort is in online forums and support groups. There are many different groups that are specific to certain cancers or breeds. Reading about similar cases and experiences can make you feel more knowledgeable and less alone.
Lastly, if your feelings of grief are spiraling deeper than you can handle, you should talk to your doctor or a trusted mental health professional. There are times when managing these intense emotions requires professional help.
Once you have decided on a plan for your pet, whether it be to pursue treatment or palliative care, you will begin to settle into a new routine; your “new normal.” If your pet is well enough, you may stick to your previous exercise regimen. If not you may need to modify it to a manageable level. Exercise boosts mood for both of you and can help maintain a semblance of normalcy in your pet’s life. Respect your pet’s limits if there is fatigue or reluctance to go on long walks. Continue to feed a high-quality, balanced diet.
Many pets treated with chemotherapy do not show many serious side effects. Nonetheless, be aware of complications that may arise from treatment itself or the disease’s progression. Common problems include pneumonia, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, loss of mobility, and accidents in the house. If these things happen, call or visit your veterinarian for advice and proper management options. Your veterinarian will also want to keep track of your pet’s progress throughout the treatment period. There may be further tests recommended to monitor the disease and allow for adjusting treatment or doses of medications. These tests may include bloodwork, x-ray, ultrasound, or an MRI.
Throughout all the appointments and busyness, remember to slow down and cherish the moments together. Take those photos, give those extra snuggles, throw the ball one extra time. We don’t always know how much time is left, so we should make those beautiful memories while we still can.
As time goes on, there will come a point when medical interventions can no longer maintain a good quality of life for your pet. Despite your best efforts, eventually, good days will dwindle, and bad days will become more frequent. The decision for humane euthanasia is a difficult and deeply personal one. I have always been humbled by the grace and compassion displayed by pet owners when making the decision. When a pet is ravaged by illness, it is a kindness to be able to end their suffering. Additionally, if the disease becomes more than your family can handle emotionally and financially, humane euthanasia may be the right decision.
My own dog lay terminally ill with cancer in the twilight of a summer evening and I knew that the time had come. He had fought bravely and endured surgery and chemotherapy as we tried in vain to slow the progression. I knew from looking at his eyes that night that the fight was over. Although the prospect of losing him was devastating, I took comfort in knowing that I could alleviate his suffering and put his needs above my own sadness.
When you've decided it's time for that final step, talk to your veterinarian about your options for euthanasia, as well as burial or cremation. Some pet owners prefer to have euthanasia performed at home in the pet's familiar surroundings, while others prefer to take the pet to the veterinary clinic. If you'd rather say your goodbyes beforehand and not be present during the procedure, that is also an option. Do what works best for you during this difficult time. There is no wrong choice.
After your pet's passing, there are several different ways you can commemorate and celebrate your pet’s life. A ceremony for burial or scattering of ashes can be done and some mark the occasion by planting a tree or placing stones at the site. In the days to come, sadness may linger as you grieve the loss of your pet. There is no right or wrong way to mourn and it is important to work through your emotions. With time and support, eventually you will be able to move beyond the difficult loss and look back at the happy memories you shared with your pet.
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