Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

How Can I Help My Dog with Cancer? Read Chapter 1: Your Role in Dog Cancer

How can I help my dog with cancer?

If you’ve just heard your dog has cancer, this is the FIRST question you want to be answered. That’s why Dr. Demian Dressler, author of the best-selling book The Dog Cancer Survival Guide (available everywhere books are sold and also in our online shop), answers it in the very first chapter of his book, excerpted below.

When it comes to dog cancer, WE are the most important factor. We’re happy to share this chapter of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide with you, and hope it helps you to adopt the MINDSET that will help your dog more than anything else you can do. When you know how to think, you can make confident decisions you won’t regret later.

Chapter 1: Your Role

Excerpted from The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity, by Dr. Demian Dressler, DVM, with Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology)

When your dog has cancer, everything changes. An otherwise typical moment – your dog running after a ball – can seem precious and fleeting. Some people stay up at night, watching their dog’s breathing, wondering how many more breaths she has. Time flies by … or slows down. Your whole life may seem unstable. You may ride the “emotional rollercoaster,” or you may feel stuck in an “emotional rut.”

This disorientation and emotional upset is normal, of course, but it can interfere with getting your dog the help she needs right now. Over the years, I have noticed that dog lovers who adopt a certain kind of attitude, role and mindset seem to have the most success dealing with their dog’s cancer. I’ll describe that role in this chapter, and I encourage you to consider adopting it for yourself and your dog.

Dog lovers who adopt a certain kind of attitude, role and mindset seem to have the most success dealing with their dog’s cancer.

How Can I Help My Dog with Cancer? Be Your Dog’s Guardian

If you are like most dog lovers, you may still have difficulty believing you must deal with dog cancer at all.

Disbelief is a normal reaction; as a fellow dog lover, I truly sympathize. But disbelief doesn’t help your dog. Changing your thoughts, from “I can’t believe this” into “I can deal with this,” is your first priority.

Your first step takes you from being a Dog Lover to becoming a Dog Guardian.

What’s the difference? It’s subtle, but important.

For a Dog Lover, a dog is a family member, and watching a beloved family member get sick or feel pain is extremely upsetting. A Dog Lover’s primary mode of relating is through shared emotional bonding.

A Dog Guardian feels the same way about her dog, but her first priority is protecting her dog. This is an important responsibility, because dogs have evolved to become dependent on us, and dogs with cancer are particularly vulnerable. As your dog’s guardian, you will now face many confusing decisions, and you will need to stay calm in order to choose wisely.

A dog guardian’s first priority is protecting her dog, staying as calm as possible, so she can make good choices.

In the extreme urgency of dealing with a dog cancer diagnosis, you could imagine the role of a guardian as much like the role of a bodyguard. The world’s best-trained bodyguards are the United States Secret Service Agents, so let’s take a look at how they operate.

If the President of the United States is in physical danger, his Secret Service agents take charge of his person and his actions. Even if the President wants to stay in a dangerous place – to help others or to make sure his family is all right – his guardians will not allow it. Their priority is the President’s safety. They are empowered, confident, and mentally and physically prepared to deal with anything, even with the President, himself. They protect him, defend his boundaries, assess situations with wisdom and fight when necessary.

Guardians, whether they guard Presidents or pooches, set their own priorities and take action based only on those priorities.

As your dog’s guardian, you acknowledge that you are in charge, that only you know your dog as well as you, and that no one else (not even your vet) can truly know what is best for you and your dog. You are her fiercest advocate for health and happiness. You take advice from well-informed and trusted sources; you also make the final decisions. You are empowered.

So, then, what is your first priority, if you are your dog’s guardian? When I had just graduated from veterinary school, my answer was “Finding the right treatment as soon as possible.”

Today, after years of research and experience, I know better. Your first priority is to clear your mind and heart of emotional upset.

Your first priority is not to find the right treatment for your dog. Your first priority is to clear your mind and heart of emotional upset.

How Can I Help My Dog With Cancer? First Priority: Deal with Your Emotions

Many readers feel uncomfortable with that last sentence. A cancer diagnosis is extreme, pressing and deadly. Doing anything that isn’t directly related to treating the cancer itself can seem like a waste of time. Surprisingly, dealing with disorienting emotions like disbelief, grief, anger, numbness, and shock is directly related to treating the cancer.

I didn’t always think that emotions played such a big a role. As an analytical scientist, I generally feel more comfortable talking about treatment options than talking about feelings.

My research changed my mind. There are certain realities that affect all humans, no matter how emotional or analytical we think we are. Let’s get a few reality checks.

Reality Check Number One

If you are emotionally aroused (angry, sad, fearful, shocked, or numb), your brain is most likely blocked from learning anything new. Numerous studies have shown this to be true, and both Dr. Ettinger and I have personally experienced this phenomenon in our own practices.

When emotionally upset, our brains tend to narrow their focus to the topic causing the distress. Later, we remember mostly what upset us, and little else.

You may have already experienced this. Think back to the appointment at which your vet gave you the diagnosis of canine cancer. Can you remember the details of what he advised? Or do you just remember hearing the words “cancer” or “six months”? Some people just remember the sweat on the vet’s forehead, or the color of his scrubs. Others remember that they’re supposed to feed a high protein diet, but not the median survival time for this cancer, the name of the recommended oncologist, or what supplements to get.

If you are reading this book while angry, sad, fearful, or numb, you run the risk of missing crucial information. You’re likely to fixate on an isolated fact that matches your current mood while ignoring the context and the relevant advice. When you clear some of those emotions first, you will absorb what you read better: you won’t have to read a chapter over and over to understand it, or worse, make mistakes based on a faulty reading.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

Releasing your emotions – whatever they are – is not a waste of time; in fact, it is an efficient use of your time. The simple exercises outlined in the next chapter won’t take long. If you ignore them and just suppress your emotions, you’ll be wasting energy and time you probably need right now.

Dealing with your emotions is not a waste of time; in fact, it is an efficient use of your time.

There is another reason you should deal with your emotions. Let’s get another reality check.

Reality Check Number Two

During periods of great stress, the human brain is likely to rely on old, usually unconscious, patterns or “rules of thumb” to make decisions, not logic.

The brain helps us live efficiently by building shortcuts for routine tasks. You may remember learning to tie your shoe, and how difficult it was to memorize all those steps in the right order. Today, you can tie your shoe while reading the paper, having a conversation or even when you’re half asleep. Your brain has built up rules of thumb so that you can tie your shoe on automatic pilot.

Using rules of thumb can be very effective when the stakes are low, but disastrous when the stakes are high, when we’re in a new situation, or when existing rules of thumb are irrelevant.

Unfortunately, if the brain is under what scientists call “disruptive stress,” (a cancer diagnosis certainly causes this level of stress for most guardians dealing with dog cancer), the part of the brain that is most active is usually the older (sometimes called “reptilian”) brain. This part of the brain is not rational; it’s instinctive. It tends to apply any rule of thumb that seems vaguely related, whether it is helpful or not. Depending upon the situation, this could be fatal.

For example, a guardian may have known a human who died of cancer after a long series of terribly painful chemotherapy treatments. This experience could have caused the creation of a rule of thumb about chemotherapy: all cancer patients suffer during chemotherapy treatments, and then they die anyway.

If the vet recommends chemotherapy, the guardian’s “old” brain may apply this rule of thumb as soon as that word is spoken. The “higher” brain might be blocked, so that information about side effects, remission rates, and median survival times is discarded as irrelevant. As a result, the guardian instinctively decides not to use chemotherapy. For some cancers, for some dogs, and for some guardians, this automatic decision could be the right one. But for some cancers, for some dogs, and for some guardians, this automatic decision might be a grave error that is regretted for years.

Managing your stress levels by managing your emotions can help you to avoid automatic, faulty decision-making.

Keep this critical fact in mind: when you are under great stress, your brain has an instinctive tendency to make automatic decisions without processing all of the available information and without consulting your brain’s center of logic. Managing your stress levels by managing your emotions can help you to avoid automatic, faulty decision-making.

There is one more reason managing emotions is a guardian’s first priority.

Reality Check Number Three

Even the most logical of human minds tends to lean toward delusional thinking during times of stress.

A brain under great stress doesn’t handle information well, especially if there are gaps in its knowledge or if there is a great deal of complexity. Instead, the brain tends to make up “facts” and simplify complicated issues. In certain situations, the otherwise normal human brain actually leans toward what researchers call “delusional thinking.”

“I have to understand what caused her cancer,” a client told me. “I need closure on this. It’s driving me crazy. I can’t think about anything else.”

We went over her dog Lucky’s medical history, but found no single, obvious cause for her hemangiosarcoma. “This is typical,” I explained, “We will probably never know the one cause of the cancer. More likely, it was caused by many things, happening over a long period of time.”

There was a long pause on the line. She finally said, “It was the vaccine. They gave her a third round of vaccinations when she was three months old, and something inside said not to let them do it. But I did. That’s what it was.”

“I agree there is some evidence connecting cancer with vaccinations,” I said. “But I can’t possibly agree, with absolute certainty, that a vaccination given ten years ago definitely caused this cancer today. It’s more likely that several things came together to cause this condition.”

“That was definitely it. I knew they shouldn’t have done it!” she replied.

This is an example of what can happen to a normal brain under great stress. My client simply could not deal with not knowing a specific answer to her burning question. In response, her brain made up a story (“it was the vaccine”) that simplified everything.

She felt better, momentarily. However, if her next dog actually needs a vaccination, then today’s delusional thinking could become tomorrow’s dangerous rule of thumb.

A cancer diagnosis represents treacherous territory for the normal brain. Cancer diagnoses are frustratingly devoid of complete, accurate information.

For example:

Question: Has it spread?

Answer: We don’t think so – but we can’t be sure.

Question: Will the surgery get it all out?

Answer: We hope so, but we won’t know until we get the biopsy back. And, even then, we still won’t know for sure.

Question: How long does he have?

Answer: We can talk about median survival times, but those aren’t directly relevant. Those times are true for a particular group of dogs in a particular study – but not for your particular dog, now.

No matter how much we know about cancer, we know too little, and cancer is an inherently complex illness. The stress generated by these two facts in our human brains is enormous. In this situation, delusional thinking is very likely to happen for any one of us. A delusion is a bad place from which to make decisions about cancer care. No matter how sane you may be, during times of unmanaged stress you and I and every other human are likely to make delusional decisions. Reducing your stress is critical.

A delusion is a bad place from which to make decisions about cancer care.

How Can I Help My Dog With Cancer? Realize: It’s All About You

Like it or not, you are the “X factor” in treating your dog’s cancer. Your mind and heart can be your best advisors or your worst enemies.

There are several exercises that can help you to decrease your emotional burden, reconnect to a clear-thinking mindset, and re-establish a clean, nurturing, compassionate relationship with your dog.

The emotional management exercises in the chapter 2 can be used at any time, and checking them out now is your first priority. Just as a Secret Service agent is always on the watch for trouble, a dog guardian is vigilant and keeps his mind and heart clear.

A dog guardian is vigilant and keeps his mind and heart clear.


Found that FREE chapter helpful? Get the full 500-page book The Dog Cancer Survival Guide for only $9.99. There are 40 more Super Helpful Chapters, 5 Incredible Appendices, and 1 Fantastic Index in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.


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