Every practising veterinarian would have been confronted by clients who shiver in fear as they present their pets who they believe are suffering from cancer. Some are reluctant even to mention the word. They call it the ‘Big C’ or just simply a “growth”. It takes some effort firstly to placate the owner and assuage the terror, before actually administering to the pet. Yet, so often, the ‘lump’ or swelling has nothing to do with cancer. Today, we will begin a series of articles on the subject.
Cancer in pets (and in humans) is a complex issue. Veterinarians are confronted often with tumours in elderly cats and dogs. I dare say human doctors also have great difficulty explaining the cancer ailment to the sufferer or to his/her family. Well, cancers in pets differ little from those in humans. Also, I should add that when you ‘google’ for information, that which you read and think you understand might very well not reflect a reality, or make you much the wiser.
Most people think of and associate the word tumour with a cancerous growth occurring on the skin or somewhere inside the body. However, any sort of lump, bump, growth or swelling (such as an abscess) is a tumour. Those which are true growths are called neoplasms.
Malignant neoplasms are the same as cancers (also called carcinomas, sarcomas or lymphomas depending upon the cell type being affected). Cancers invade and destroy. They tend to spread via the bloodstream and lymphatic system to distant parts of the body. This is called metastasizing.
Cancer is graded accordingly to its degree of malignancy. Low-grade cancers continue to grow locally and may attain a large size. They metastasize late in the course of the illness. High-grade cancers, on the other hand, metastasize early – when the primary growth is still quite small or barely detectable.
Cancers are approached in the following manner: Suppose a female dog has a lump in her breast. Since it is solid, it is probably a neoplasm. It could be benign or malignant. The decision is made to biopsy the lump. This is a surgical operation during which the lump, or a part of the lump is removed and sent to a histopathologist. A histopathologist is a medical specialist who has been trained to make a diagnosis by visual inspection of tissue under a microscope.
An experienced histopathologist can tell whether the tumour is a cancer. He/She can often provide additional information as to the degree of malignancy. This serves the purpose of making the diagnosis and, in many cases, gives the rationale for the most appropriate treatment. Well, even at this relatively early stage of discussion between the vet and the pet owner, there must always be the question: Should I (the pet owner) go any further with therapy/surgery. Not because something can be done does it necessarily follow that it should be done. Is it worth the while to add a brief span of life to the pet while it suffers, and both the owner and the pet are confronted with great emotional stress? After 45 years of veterinarian practice, I am not convinced that in any of the cases presented to me the consideration of the pet was first and foremost in the owner’s mind. After all, the owner wants peace of mind and desires to have the feeling and the justification that he/she did everything to prolong the animal’s life. Further, let’s face it: we humans find it difficult to accept the fact that all life must end. Should our primary consideration not be to reduce/eliminate the animal’s suffering?
Having written the last paragraph, it would be remiss of me not to mention that your vet has the tools to help you make the right decision, and make the animal’s life longer and bearable.
Next week we will continue this topic.
Please implement disease preventative measures (vaccinations, routine dewormings, monthly anti-Heartworm medication, etc) and adopt-a-pet from the GSPCA’s Animal Clinic and Shelter at Robb Street and Orange Walk, if you have the wherewithal to care well for the animals. Do not stray your unwanted pets, take them to the GSPCA’s Clinic and Shelter instead. If you do not wish your pet to have puppies or kittens, you may exploit the GSPCA’s free spay and neutering programme. If you see anyone being cruel to an animal, or if you need any technical information, please get in touch with the Clinic and Shelter by calling 226-4237.