October, as pretty much everyone on earth knows, is national breast cancer month and it suddenly seems like everyone is talking about cancer. While cancer in humans is major topic, cancer in dogs and cats seems to get a lot less attention. Still the words "your dog/cat has cancer" is many pet owners worst fear. I know it was, and is, mine. In December of last year, before I started this blog, I faced that fear when Tubby was diagnosed with a malignant mast cell tumor.
The whole thing started when I found a very small lump, and I mean tinier then a bug bite, on Tubby's stomach. Luckily, I am a worry wort and very pro-active in pet care and I brought him to the vet immediately. My vet thought the lump was a lipoma (benign fatty tumor) but thank goodness she did a needle biopsy. It is important to biopsy EVERY lump, because as I learned mast cell tumors can look just lipomas, without a biopsy you absolutely can not know what the lump is. In addition mast cell tumors sometimes appear and disappear. They are known as "the great imitators" in Veterinary circles because they are impossible to diagnosis by appearance alone.
When we found out the lump was malignant my worst fears where realized. I did a lot of research and found this website: Dog Cancer Blog particularly helpful. I learned that MCTs are common in pugs and boxers and that while some are very serious, others are more benign and treatable.
I had Tubby's lump removed immediately, and he got his teeth cleaned too. With MCTs wide margins are very important because the lesion can extend well past the visible lump. Luckily my vet was able to get clean margins on Tubby. The lump was diagnosed as a grade 2 mast cell tumor, with a pretty low mitotic index. Overall a good report, not as good as a 1, and no where near as bad as a 3.
After the surgery I took Tubby for a consult with an oncologist at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital. My only regret in the whole affair is I wish we had seen the oncologist right away. My regular vet was confident she could do the surgery and I was so desperate to get the cancer out that I wanted surgery right away. Speaking to the oncologist I felt more confident that Tubby could live a very long time and that we might never see another MCT. I do wish, however, that the Oncologist had performed Tubby's surgery. His experience with mast cell tumors was vast and I think I would have felt more secure earlier had he performed the surgery. From the oncologist I learned that cancer in dogs is not a death sentence.
Luckily, its been 9 months and thank goodness no sign of re-growth. I sometimes still check Tubby obsessively, but I have calmed down a lot.
In some ways I started this blog because of Tubby's cancer. It was such a tough time for me and in the months afterward I found I wanted to write about Tubby and my other pets, though I didn't yet feel comfortable writing about the cancer. Today, I feel better about the whole experience, awful as it was, it has made me better able to deal with my pets aging and the inevitability of their loss. If you are luck enough to have love in your life then you will experience loss. Dogs with their short life spans and their bottomless capacity for affection bring this to the forefront of our relationships with them. Most of us know we will outlive our dogs and cats. I have met plenty of people who say they will never have another pet, or who wait years, after the loss of a canine or feline companion to get another. As much as I understand the unique and irreplaceable bond we have with our pets I think this is sad. Dogs bring so much love in to our lives and if you love one dog then you can, and will, love another, even though the relationship will be different. It is important to remember that new love doesn't diminish old.
Some basics of cancer care I learned from the experience:
- Get every lump biopsied, if your vet doesn't want to do a needle biopsy get a new vet. Some vets dismiss growths as lipomas but mast cell tumors are called the great imitator and can look like anything.
- Wide margins are necessary on a MCT. This is one reason to see a surgeon as they are more adept at getting wide margins, especially in tricky areas.
- Ask for the tumors mitotic index. Most MCTs are graded a 2, on a scale of 1 to 3 with one being basically benign and 3 being highly malignant. Mitotic index helps predict how the tumor will behave if it is a grade 2. A mitotic index of less then five means the tumor is growing slowly, Tubby's was a two, a mitotic index of greater then five indicates rapid growth. With a higher mitotic index you may want to look into chemotherapy or radiation.
- See an oncologist. You can find a Veterinary oncologist in your area here
- Feed a grain free diet. I was already feeding Tubby a rotating diet of grain free kibbles, freeze dried raw, and frozen raw. Grain free diets are particularly helpful in cancer care. Look at this link for more information on why a grain free diet is a good idea for dogs with cancer.
- Look into supplements. I was already giving all of my dogs fish oil on a regular basis before Tubby's diagnosis. Fish oil contains omega fatty acids that are helpful in preventing cancer as well as in combating arthritis. After Tubby's diagnosis I researched supplements for Mast Cell Tumors and started him on curcumin, an extract of tumeric. Curcumin is known to be very affective in fighting mast cell tumors and is a powerful antioxidant. I know give it to all my dogs. Most importantly, run any supplements you try by your vet. Some can have adverse reactions, particularly in dogs on chemotherapy regimes.
- Appreciate every day with your dog-this is obviously the most important tip of all!