Goodness and sadness in the face of cancer

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Cancer — the one word that evokes fear and universal anxiety. The one word no one is ever fully prepared to hear. This dreaded disease affects too many humans and pets alike. And when it comes to our beloved animals, it’s the one diagnosis that alarming statistics show account for nearly half of all disease-related pet deaths.

“Over the age of 10, fifty percent of cats and dogs are diagnosed with cancer,” says Dr. Kimberly Freeman, DACVIM of The Veterinary Cancer Referral Center in Portland, OR.  

Amazingly, the current rate of cancer is higher in dogs than in humans. The stories are all too common these days of animals fighting this deadly disease, oftentimes losing.

Have the statistics increased over time?  Not really, says Dr. Freeman.  “More statistics are being reported because people are becoming better pet owners,” she says, “and are bringing their pets in earlier when things are out of the ordinary.” Freeman adds that advanced modalities such as x-rays, ultrasounds, CAT scans and MRIs allow for better and earlier detection.

What is cancer? Simply stated, it is unchecked, abnormal cell growth. Body cells normally follow a regulated pattern of cell growth, division and demise. New cells replace old ones as they die off, and all is right with the world. 

Abnormal, cancerous cells behave differently by following a pattern of continuous development, outliving normal cells as they accumulate into growths known as tumors. Benign tumors remain confined, not spreading to other parts of the body. Malignant tumors, however, contain cells that can grow out of control, deep into the tissue from which they began, and spread to other tissues and organs.

Unfortunately, every animal has the potential for cancer . . . birds, rabbits and other small pets can suffer cancer-related diseases too. Most forms of cancer develop in middle-aged to older animals but they can occur in early life.

Cancer follows no iron-clad rule and there is no one single cause, but, “Age, genetics, obesity and poor-quality nutrition are all proven factors,” says Freeman.  

Because of the many carcinogens in our world — everything from pollutants in the air and water to pesticides, cleansers, and plastics, Freeman says it’s hard to pinpoint environmental reasons as direct causes, although they may have an effect over time.

Different types of cancer respond to certain types of treatments, both traditional and holistic. Advances in nutrition and veterinary care are providing more and better treatment options for extending the lives of beloved companion animals. 

Holistic Pet Vet Clinic in Tigard, OR has seen many success stories with their furry patients. “There is a place for all types of modalities,” says Laurie Austin, clinic manager, “including chemo and radiation, for animal cancer. Our approach to cancer is an excellent adjunct to conventional chemo and radiation treatments. We can help the patient be more comfortable and enable their body to handle (to a much greater degree) the intensity and discomfort of those extreme modalities.”

The best prevention? Maintaining a healthy weight, well-balanced nutrition, regular exercise and exams, and — depending on the age and breed of your pet — even semi-annual veterinary visits. Dr. Freeman recommends all pets over age 10 have bi-annual blood work and thorough physical exams.

While symptoms may vary or even be scarce until a cancer has become more advanced, early warning signs that call for immediate action include:

  • Abnormal swelling that persists and continues to grow
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bleeding or discharge from any body opening
  • Offensive odor and/or chronic bad breath
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina
  • Persistent lameness or stiffness
  • Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating

Unlike dogs and cats that can show symptoms in early stages, rabbits and birds may not show signs until the disease has spread. Therefore, any change in behavior, eating patterns or repeated diarrhea, vomiting or fatigue should prompt an instant visit to your veterinarian.

Early detection is key. The earlier a tumor is diagnosed, the better the chances for effective treatment and even a cure. Because some types of cancer are not detected easily, any sign that your pet is “just not feeling right” should be taken seriously. Vigilant pet parents and veterinarians have saved pets by addressing growths or other subtle changes as soon as they noticed them. 

Freeman, who has practiced oncology at The Veterinary Cancer Referral Center for seven years, says she finds the work rewarding for a couple reasons: one, being able to manage the disease and quality of life in her patients; and two, providing owners with a better understanding of the disease and helping them be proactive by providing explanations of what could happen. “I like to make it less scary for them by letting them know what to expect and what they can do.

Dealing with cancer is often an emotional and difficult time for a pet owner. “Most people when they hear cancer, they have no hope, and the ability to give them a degree of hope is rewarding.” says Freeman.

Working to make way for even greater hope, many organizations are working toward goodness and hope through research, developing better treatments, and eventually a cure. Many of these organizations were born from broken hearts. Like phoenixes rising from the ashes, founders’ stories often tell of an animal taken too soon, and a human being unwilling to let the story end there.

Cera Reusser of Warrenton, OR wanted answers after losing her six-year-old black Lab, Chase. Reusser’s devotion to her best friend led her to create Chase Away K9 Cancer, which began and still follows the mantra: “one dollar at a time.”

In just four years, Chase Away K9 Cancer has raised $374,586, all from donations, many one dollar at a time, as well as sales of merchandise bearing the Chase Away logo. All proceeds go to the American College of Veterinary Medicine (ACVIM) in support of canine cancer studies.

Reusser says “The vets at ACVIM take this very seriously, especially knowing that the money is raised one dollar at a time.” So far Chase Away’s efforts have funded seven studies, and Reusser says good strides are being made.

In September 2009, Nancy Elston lost Molly, her 6½-year-old Golden Retriever to Hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive, malignant tumor of blood vessel cells. A month after losing Molly suddenly, Elston’s yellow Lab Abby developed mast cell tumors and required surgery. Abby had her third surgery in August and is a survivor. This type of tumor can reoccur, so Elston keeps a vigilant eye. “I have been lucky to catch them early,” she says. “They have never gone to the stage where we need to do chemo or radiation.”

Elston’s experience led her to read everything she could on canine cancer. Along the way she discovered the National Canine Cancer Foundation (NCCF), an organization based in Arizona, whose founders had lost three beloved dogs to cancer. 

The NCCF has chapters nationwide that raise money locally at small events and larger, foundation-coordinated events. 

“I was surprised to find out that one of the most dog-friendly cities in the country did not have a chapter,” says Elston. Desperately wanting to help, she went into action, coordinating fundraisers, raising awareness and spreading the word about canine cancer and the foundation.

The magnitude of her efforts might be measured in the now-familiar sight of the organization’s signature pink paw. Wherever you might find Northwest “dog people,” you’re likely to spot the pink paw on hats, t-shirts, pins and car windows. “People don’t know where to go and there are wonderful organizations out there to let you know that you are not alone,” says Elston, who has become one of those resources herself.

When Elston began working with NCCF a year ago, there were only six chapters nationwide; now there are 12. All funds raised from the chapters goes directly to laboratories that must apply through the foundation for grants to fund research aimed at developing innovative approaches to prevention, treatment and acure for cancers in dogs.

Chase Away K9 Cancer and the National Canine Cancer Foundation are just two of many wonderful organizations committed to finding a cure for pet cancer. Cancer touches everyone, and while we all have different abilities and resources, each of us is capable of contributing. By giving our time or money (yes, even one dollar at a time), we can make a difference.

And the difference we can make in our animals’ lives is one of the greatest lessons they teach us . . . living in the moment and enjoying each day.


Chase Away K9 Cancer *

The National Canine Cancer Foundation *

Morris Animal Foundation *

The following orgs offer financial support to those who cannot afford treatment:

Canine Cancer Awareness *

The Magic Bullet Fund *


Vonnie Harris is a freelance writer, and operator of BowWows & Meows Pet Services of SW WA. She and her brood, Jake and Jessie, both yellow Labs, and parrots Pedro (Yellow-Nape Amazon) and Lorali (African Grey) reside in Vancouver. Vonnie also is “the face of Spot” at many Portland-area pet-related events. Contact her at