Just like for humans, learning our pet has cancer can affect us greatly. We can feel worried and overwhelmed with the amount of information to sort through and decisions we need to make about treatment and ongoing care.
For Marrickville resident Gwenda Gray, learning her four-year-old Golden Retriever, Gomez, had terminal cancer turned her life upside down. She had several dogs over the years that lived to a ripe old age. In fact, her Golden Retriever, Monty, is going to turn 14 this year.
‘I’ve never had a dog die young, that’s why it’s such a shock,’ says Gwenda. ‘This healthy dog in the prime of his life has cancer? I can’t believe it. People always comment on Gomez’s energy, his love of life – it just doesn’t fit.’
Sadly, cancer has no boundaries, threatening all species large and small, and is one of the most common diseases affecting dogs today. According to Dr Angela Frimberger, veterinary oncologist at Sydney’s Animal Referral Hospital (ARH), veterinary oncology has come a long way in offering better outcomes for pets over the past decade.
‘Nowadays, people are increasingly seeking best possible care for their companion animals and they are taking better care of their pets,’ she Dr Frimberger. ‘More pets are reaching old age and facing old age conditions, cancer being one of them. But of all chronic conditions associated with old age, cancer is most treatable.’
Based on her case load, Dr Frimberger estimates more than 24,000 dogs develop cancer annually in New South Wales. ‘Of my patients, approximately 15 to 20 per cent of patients are permanently cured and another 70 per cent of patients experience significantly prolonged survival time and improved quality of life as a result of their treatment.’
Veterinary oncology is a fast-changing field with new research coming out every day and access to more cutting-edge equipment for cancer diagnosis and treatment. The recently installed high field MRI machine at the ARH, for instance, allows vets to easily and accurately investigate dogs with hard-to-diagnose cancers (among other conditions) without the need for invasive surgery.
‘There are many new medications accessible for human cancer treatment in the world today, and a lot of them translate to dogs. In fact, we now have cancer medication specifically developed for dogs with cell tumours,” says Dr Frimberger. ‘We continually look for ways to improve remission and cure rates while still keeping quality of life a top priority.’
Sadly, Gomez’s cancer is incurable as it is an intrapelvic infiltrative lipoma, a locally aggressive tumour of fatty cells that continuously grows larger, spreading into the organs around it.
‘Gomez’s cancer is in the pelvic area, which causes him problems urinating and defecating,’ says Dr Tony Moore, veterinary oncologist at the ARH. ‘The cancer has grown into the surrounding tissues (pelvic area) and removing the tissues would mean removing the colon, bladder and part of the muscles, which is not something you can do and have a normal quality of life afterwards.’
After an MRI showed the exact location and size of the tumour, Gomez underwent surgery to remove as much of the tumour as was possible.
Dr Moore says, ‘studies show it will take about seven to eight months for the cancer to grow back and it gets bigger every time you do surgery. Treatment with radiation therapy would have been a good option but the affected area involves Gomez’s spine, bowel and urinary bladder, and radiation effects would be severe and potentially fatal.’
Cancers stimulate growth of new blood vessels that supply them with oxygen and nutrients, allowing them to grow in size and spread throughout the body.
‘So [for Gomez] we decided to go with a different chemotherapy treatment, called antiangiogenesis, which has proven effective in slowing or preventing recurrence of soft-tissue sarcomas as it cuts off new blood vessels, effectively starving tumours and preventing their growth,’ he Dr Moore.
For Gwenda, following the treatment plan means providing round-the-clock care for Gomez at home while managing her full-time job as a social worker.
‘Gomez has blood tests every few weeks, urine tests, ultrasounds every few months, and we jiggle around medication depending on how he is. I feel like I can’t go anywhere,’ she says – not that she’s complaining, but it’s exhausting work.
Gwenda’s commitment to her dog, however, is showing results. Gomez is responding well to the treatment and is his happy self, despite some side effects that make him tired at times.
‘He’s been so happy through the whole thing, it’s quite bizarre,’ she Gwenda. ‘He loves everybody at the Animal Referral Hospital, gives them kisses. He’s got a brilliant nature. I’m also so much happier since treatment began as I had been very stressed. It has cost us $10,000 already, but I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made (about his treatment) because he’s doing so well.’
The oncology team at the ARH is keenly aware of the stress that pet owners experience when their pets are diagnosed with cancer, let alone going through a rigorous cancer treatment regime.
‘Pet owners need a lot of emotional support and it’s great to get that from friends and family, as well as their work environment, because it can also be time consuming just going through the diagnostic process,’ says Dr Frimberger.
It’s also a confusing time for pet owners as they can access a variety of medical advice on the Internet. Sometimes, however, according to Dr Frimberger the quality of that advice is highly variable and can cause further stress.
‘Some people are so worried about doing the best they can for their pets, they end up gathering so many pieces of advice that they can’t see the forest from the trees anymore,’ she says. ‘It’s important to discuss all the options, but be careful about where you get factual information. Instead of it being helpful, it leads to people being confused and often guilty about what they did or should do.’
It’s also important according to Dr Frimberger to ‘take advice with a grain of salt’, especially from a website selling a product, book or supplement. Instead she advises to ‘have a few trusted people, including veterinary specialists [to consult], who have your pet’s best interest in mind.’
Gwenda is grateful for the generosity and support of her family and friends, not to mention her vet from the Earlwood Veterinary Hospital and her naturopath. It seems Gomez also has a number of ‘doggy friends’ whose owners check in regularly to see how he’s doing.
‘It has taught me how much love I have around me,’ says Gwenda. ‘Sometimes we question that in life. My partner, Laz, has also been a pillar of strength. Gomez is his dog, too. All this has shown me how good my life is.’
Gwenda knows the cancer treatment is not a cure for Gomez, but it will give them more time to say goodbye.