In the three years that Allie’s been working at Bryan Middle School in Bryan, Ohio, she’s been diagnosed with cancer four times. But hearing the “C” word doesn’t get her down. In fact, each time she’s diagnosed, she takes only a few days off for treatment. What’s Allie’s secret to cancer survival? No one can say for sure — but one possibility may be the fact that Allie is a golden retriever. “Allie is a trooper,” says the 9-year-old therapy dog’s handler, guidance counselor Jackie Boyd. “She always bounces back to her old self! She is a fighter.” The ability of Allie and other dogs to live with cancer is becoming less and less unusual. “In many cases, cancer in dogs is not a death sentence at all,” says Deborah Knapp, DVM, professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Purdue University. “There are many forms of cancer that are curable.” And even when cancer can’t be cured, some dogs, like Allie, can live with the disease for quite awhile. “As the practice of veterinary oncology has evolved, so has the philosophy of cancer care,” explains Carolyn Henry, DVM, associate professor of veterinary oncology at the University of Missouri. “We now realize that even for patients that cannot be cured of their cancer, we can often provide treatments that will control symptoms and slow disease progression so that they can live a good quality of life with cancer.”
Some of those treatments include:
For all but systemic cancers, such as lymphoma, surgery to remove a tumor is still usually the initial step in treatment. For example, Allie has surgery to remove her skin tumors whenever they arise. Such surgery causes her to miss a few days of school while she recovers. Meanwhile, though, “minimally invasive surgical techniques are being developed to reduce the morbidity associated with cancer surgery,” says Dr. Henry.
Chemotherapy is simply the administration of drugs designed to kill cancer cells, but such therapy often affects normal cells as well. However, “therapies are currently being developed and evaluated that selectively target cancer cells while not harming normal cells,” says Dr. Knapp.
Radiation therapy delivers very strong X-ray beams to a tumor in an effort to kill the tumor cells, but like chemotherapy, it can also harm healthy tissue near the tumor. Radiation oncology researchers continue to develop new ways to target those beams much more precisely so that normal tissue is spared. Even when radiation doesn’t totally kill a tumor, it can keep the tumor from growing, which can prolong the dog’s life and also improve its quality of life.
Diet, Vaccines and Research
In addition to these traditional therapies, researchers are developing and employing completely new anticancer techniques. For example, scientists are learning more about how low-carbohydrate/high-fat diets can effectively starve certain types of cancerous tumors while still feeding the patient. Other researchers are exploring areas such as injecting genes into the body to increase a canine cancer patient’s strength and prolong its life. Antitumor vaccines that hope to use old drugs, such as one currently given to malaria patients, to combat bone cancer are also in the works. At the same time, still other scientists are learning more and more about the ways cancers develop and grow. Such knowledge could well lead to even more innovative treatments that could lengthen lives or even cure canine cancers.
Meanwhile, dogs like Allie are living proof that it’s possible for dogs to enjoy happy, productive lives even though they have cancer. Boyd says that thanks to Allie, “the students have learned that although cancer is scary, it isn’t always fatal.”
Susan McCullough is an award-winning pet writer and the author of Housetraining for Dummies, Senior Dogs for Dummies and Beagles for Dummies. She was also honored by The Cat Writers Association as a finalist for the Muse Medallion, which recognizes excellence in writing about cats.