As the editor of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, I’ve been thinking about dog cancer every day for over a decade. I have been managing this website for Dr. Demian Dressler, absorbing and editing his words, and answering millions of emails from dog lovers all over the world. This is not fun work, I’ll admit. But it feels important and meaningful. In September, I found out just how important when my own little Kanga faced down her own dog cancer surgery. I hope to impart a few of the things I learned over the last few months below. There are also a few videos to share with you … don’t worry — nothing too graphic.
(I’m still quite raw emotionally so I may not be very articulate and organized. I apologize in advance for that, and hope that if you have questions or need clarity, you will let me know in the comments so I can address your feedback.)
Editor’s Note: This article was written in December 2018. My latest updates for Kanga’s health are below the main article.
You Can Do Everything “Right” and Still Get Cancer 🙁
Here’s the shocking truth about my dog’s cancer: I’ve done just about everything right as a dog mom. When Kanga, an eight-pound Maltese, came to live with us at age 13 weeks, I took Dr. Dressler’s advice:
- Delayed spay (actually, never did one, for various reasons)
- Delayed her vaccinations
- Never, ever fed her commercial dog food (until The Honest Kitchen started making their lovely dehydrated human-grade food, which Kanga loves and takes some of the pressure of cooking tasks)
- I gave her EverPup* every day starting at age 2 when it first arrived on the market.
- She’s had daily walks, most days on the beach.
- We give dozens of pets and snuggles a day.
True to breed, her teeth are awful — but otherwise, she’s been almost disgustingly healthy. She just turned ten in October, but routinely gets mistaken for a puppy.
So what happened?
Your dog can fight cancer with food!
Finding the Lump
In late September, I took Kanga to see Dr. Dressler for a physical and a MUCH needed tooth cleaning.
I knew her teeth had been bothering her for a while. She’d become picky about food and sometimes didn’t want to eat at all. Her breath smelled like a garbage truck. I avoided bringing her in, typically, because I am always worried about anesthesia risks. Finally, when she vomited three mornings in a row, I decided we better go in.
Pro Tip: If your dog is vomiting thin yellow bile in the morning, and has stinky breath, it could be an abscess that is draining to the stomach and irritating the whole system. It could also be something worse. Don’t be like me, take your dog in for regular oral hygiene appointments.
Dr. D examined her thoroughly, including X-rays to make sure her lungs were clear for anesthesia. (At ten, she’s getting to that age when it could be riskier.)
He put her on a round of antibiotics to clear her obvious mouth infection, advised me that she would likely lose a dozen teeth, and sent me home. I decided to wait until my husband got back to Maui before bringing her back for a follow-up. I can’t tell you why, exactly, although it had something to do with me being a wimp and not wanting to deal with the stress of worrying about her all by myself.
My Delay May Have Saved Her Life
It took about five weeks for us to get back to Dr. D’s office to get her pre-dental bloodwork done, which turned out to be a blessing.
Why? Because Dr. D decided to examine her again, and as he palpated her abdomen, he paused.
“There is a lump that was not here a month ago.”
Oh. My. Word.
If we’d gone in a few weeks earlier, we may have never found that tumor. We’d have just cleaned her teeth, then waited months to “torture” her with another vet visit!
Sometimes, procrastination pays off. (Sometimes.)
But Does She Really Need Dog Cancer Surgery?
Ultrasound was ordered, and there it was — a mass 2.5cm long where her right ovary should be.
What had been a discussion about routine dental cleaning was turning, quickly, into a discussion about biopsies, prognosis, and ovarian tumor types.
I remained calm, especially compared to how most people feel when getting this news.
I know so much about how common dog cancer is — how stupidly, ridiculously often people lose their dogs to cancer — that I can’t say I was surprised, exactly.
After all, we live about five miles away from a field where a giant biotech company sprays cocktails of herbicides and pesticides on their seed corn to see if it can withstand the chemicals. We’re downwind, and I am acutely aware that open-air spraying of those substances really increases our exposure. Closing windows and eating organic food can help, but I can’t avoid exposure from just walking outside, breathing our air, or swimming in the ocean off that field.
One out of two dogs over the age of ten gets cancer. One out of seven dogs eventually gets cancer. It’s the number one cause of death in dogs, after shelter euthanasia. I’ve known this for years. I’ve been emotionally preparing for the reality that I could do “everything right” at home … and my Kanga and Roo could still get cancer.
Even with all this knowledge, though, I was gripped by apprehension and doubt. Could I really let Dr. D cut her open? Was the risk really worth it?
Was the risk really worth it?
The look in his eyes told me what I needed to know: yes, it was worth it.
“This thing has been growing quickly. We’ve got to get it out and see what else is going on.”
We scheduled the surgery for a few days later, early on a morning when he had no other surgeries and could monitor her all day after.
She had become super picky about food, and we had to hand-feed her by this point. The night before surgery my husband James decided she needed a special meal. We are kinda superstitious, so I won’t call it her “last meal.” But for the first time ever she got to sit up with us at the table. We had to put a bunch of pillows on the chair and her dog bed on top of that. I felt supremely silly, because I’m not really a dog-at-the-table kind of dog mom. But … we really wanted her to eat, because we knew she hadn’t been and wouldn’t for a few days. So, anything to get her interested!
Here’s a home-movie video I took of James hand-feeding her a dinner of turkey or beef burgers and rice.
I’m laughing at myself right now, because even watching that video a month later, I think “ugh, her freshly washed hair is getting in the plate!”
Pro Tip: if you can bathe your dog before surgery, do so. It will be a while before they can get anything other than a sponge bath while the wounds heal!
Day of the Dog Cancer Surgery
I’m not going to go into details about the surgery itself, because the images I saw on Dr. D’s phone are just not ones I want to think about (let alone show you). Here are the basic facts.
- It took nearly 3 hours, which is a long time for a ten year old, eight pound dog.
- The right ovary had “reached out” tentacles and attached itself to the kidney, it’s neighbor, and the spleen, which is not a neighbor.
- There were multiple blood vessels Dr. D had to carefully cut in order to get the whole thing out.
- The tumor was bleeding inside — a slow oozy type of bleed that can happen when a tumor grows so fast that it outgrows its own blood supply and starts to die off. If left inside her, that bloody tumor could very likely have erupted into a life-threatening internal bleed.
- The other ovary was “degenerating” and the uterus was full of what later turned out to be endometriosis.
- Kanga did much better under anesthesia than any of us thought she would.
- Dr. D was also able to get her teeth cleaned and extract the abscessed tooth.
- He was pretty sure he’d gotten all of the tumor out.
I was really, really grateful that Dr. D was there for us and for Kanga. Before the surgery, when I handed her over to him, he said “I’m going to take good care of her,” and I knew he was making a soul deep commitment.
Learn how to communicate with your veterinary professionals 🙂
I didn’t quite hold my breath until the phone rang to tell us she was out, but I did get a little lightheaded a few times.
When we picked her up later that day, Kanga was mad at me for the first time ever. She wouldn’t look at me. She didn’t kiss me for nearly 48 hours.
She felt, and looked, awful.
I felt like a big, mean, awful jerk.
Night of the Dog Cancer Surgery
That night I held her in my arms in bed at an angle that prevented her from putting pressure on the massive, six-inch-long belly scar she sported. The staples were so close together they looked like a zipper up her abdomen, and she moaned or squealed throughout the night.
I used to be a massage therapist, and I know that my hands “feel good” to others. But that night, I didn’t feel like I could offer her any comfort. The best I could do was simply give Reiki, all night long.
It was horrible. As I lay there, listening to her whine-breathe, I truly regretted the surgery. I kept thinking “it couldn’t possibly be worth all this pain, all this trauma.”
Natural, Normal, Second-Guessing Denial
After a few hours of sleepless self-denigration, I realized that I was doing exactly what I’ve seen so many other dog lovers do — second-guessing myself. I worked it all through in my mind. I followed my thoughts to their logical conclusions.
- I shouldn’t have had the surgery, I should have just let her be.
- OK, well, then what would be a likely scenario? She would die of catastrophic internal bleeding … and I would feel terrible because I knew she had this massive tumor inside and didn’t take it out.
- The only way that would have been OK is if I hadn’t known about the tumor.
- But then I would have been mad at myself for not getting her teeth cleaned sooner!
I started to relax a little, as I realized that no matter what, I would blame myself or try to blame others for what Kanga was going through. It’s a normal, natural part of denial. I was just in denial about this whole thing because I couldn’t bear her pain.
Cut yourself some slack. You will always second-guess yourself.
So, my job was to cut myself some slack and realize that I had made the best choice I could. If she recovered fully, the surgery would have removed a massive tumor that could have killed her in weeks.
My job now was to care for her post-surgery and wait for those effing biopsy results. Both would take at least 12 days — so I just had to focus on her care.
It didn’t help me sleep, but at least I wasn’t beating myself up all night.
Post Dog Cancer Surgery Care
This is where the book really came in handy for me. While most readers will find an entire chapter about their dog’s tumor in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, there isn’t one on rare ovarian tumors. So I focused on wound care, and absolute, 100% rest for my pup.
She has always had panic attacks in her crate, so I got a dog sling to use around the house and kept her on her leash at all times.
I tied her up on her little dog bed so she couldn’t move even when she wasn’t on my body.
I kept her cone on, even though she HATED it.
I made sure she was clean as possible but didn’t give her a bath.
I was persnickety about her antibiotics and pain medications, absolutely refusing to take NO for an answer on anything.
When we went outside so she could relieve herself, I didn’t let her go farther than her six-foot leash allows.
My husband and I both pray, and we both have Reiki, so we did a LOT of both.
Dogs don’t know they need almost total rest. Make sure your dog gets it after surgery!
Every day, thankfully, she improved. She even started offering me her belly for rubs after five days. She started eating as her mouth recovered from the extractions, and that really helped to perk her up. By the time we went back on day 12, Dr. D was thrilled to be able to remove all the staples and give her the OK for walks around our neighborhood.
He was also thrilled to give us the BEST POSSIBLE OUTCOME: her tumor type.
Granulosa Cell Tumor!
Based on what he’d seen in surgery, we were all prepared to find out that Kanga’s tumor was an aggressive carcinoma that would likely have already spread, despite her looking clear on both X-rays and ultrasound just weeks ago. In that case, we would be preparing ourselves for an end of life situation within the next few months.
But that’s not what she had. She had a granulosa cell tumor, which, thankfully, has the best prognosis. While they can metastasize, the likelihood that happens is only 20%!
As of now, we don’t see any spread on imaging, and he thinks he got the entire tumor out in his marathon surgery.
So at this point, we are breathing a sigh of relief. For now.
And Kanga? She feels FANTASTIC. She’s playing, running, jumping, and basically acting like nothing happened.
Follow Up Treatments and Check Ups
In four months we will head back to the vet (despite her literal screams of protest) to check and see if any more tumors appear on imaging. But in the meantime, Kanga will be on Dr. Dressler’s Full Spectrum Cancer Care recommendations, the same ones that millions of dog lovers have told me over the last decade have helped their dogs. And yes, for the rest of her natural life — whatever that is — we will assume that she has cancer on a microscopic level. It’s just smarter that way.
UPDATE: Kanga remains cancer-free at the end of May, 2021. Follow up ultrasounds reveal no problems. Thankfully! I’m even considering having her teeth cleaned again. She might forgive me quicker if she wakes up without major stitches.
Full Spectrum Cancer Care Recommendations I’m Following for Kanga
I’m a good student, so I’m taking this cancer thing as my teacher Dr. D recommends: one step at a time.
- Step One is Conventional Tools Like Surgery, Chemotherapy, or Radiation … in our case, surgery has been a success, and she is healing REALLY well. Not even three weeks after undergoing that massive surgery, she is back to her puppy-like ways, eating happily and taking walks, including, as of this morning, on the BEACH. My husband James and I have already decided that at her age, we will not likely do another surgery even if another tumor appears. She really hated the process, and unless it’s very discrete and easy to take care of, it’s probably not worth the life quality loss for her (and for us). These tumors spread to the lungs and abdomen, and we just can’t see opening her up again at her age. If we see spread in a few months, we will not do chemotherapy or radiation to treat it. The protocols are not worked out for these rare tumor types, and we don’t want to put her through it if we don’t have solid numbers telling us it’s worth it. We don’t have those, so we likely aren’t doing those.
- Step Two is Nutraceuticals … dietary apoptogens may really support normal cell turnover and encourage cells to “wake up” and eliminate themselves BEFORE they become problems. Nutraceuticals are discussed in chapter 12. We use Apocaps CX, because it’s appropriate for Kanga, has no side effects to worry about, and really supports her life quality while we wait to see what else happens with this stinking thing.
- Step Three is Anti-Metastatic Supplements and Immune Boosters … I’ve got her on a medicinal mushroom blend to boost her immune system called K9 Immunity (other brands work, too), plus a Transfer Factor that boosts its effects. I’ve also put her on modified citrus pectin, another dietary apoptogen that also offers good anti-metastatic support. She’s sleeping in total darkness, getting plenty of sunlight, and is still taking EverPup as her multivitamin.
- Step Four is Diet … I’ve given Kanga fresh food since her puppyhood, but now I’m a lot stricter about low-carb foods, and making sure she gets plenty of liver and cruciferous veggies. This step I’ve already been doing, but I’m becoming more conscientious, for sure.
- Step Five is Brain Chemistry Modifications … including daily exercise, massage, as much Reiki as she likes (and she likes a lot), and plenty of fresh air. I’m also starting to meditate with her again. I’m sorry I ever stopped!
Seriously, if the editor of this book needed it when she found out her dog has cancer, you should get a copy, too.
What I Learned:
Here’s a partial list of what I learned during the last few months that I either didn’t fully understand before or just plain didn’t know:
- My dog’s occasional hesitancy to eat starting about four months ago should have been a major red flag that SOMETHING was wrong.
- Tumors can die and start to bleed even as they are growing — and if the dying tumor cells are in or near a major blood vessel, this can open up a hole that dumps blood into the dog’s body cavity. While Kanga’s tumor was “oozing” not “flowing” with blood, it could have been much, much worse. These bleeds are life-threatening.
- Because of the above, I know really understand why vets always “want to cut it out.” It’s not just about (or even really about in some cases) removing the cancer. It’s about saving the dog from a disgusting, painful death from a potential catastrophic internal bleed.
- I could beat myself up for “waiting too long” to get it addressed, but then again, waiting we were able to find a life-threatening situation that was not noticeable during a regular exam.
- Imaging is expensive, but man, it sure clarifies things. Seeing a clear X-ray of her lungs was such a relief. Seeing the ultrasound of the ovarian tumor was motivating.
- I will start judging myself for everything when my dog is in pain or sick. I have to really cut myself some slack to stay focused and make good decisions.
- When the discharge instructions say “complete rest,” they MEAN it. The incision wasn’t the only thing Kanga had to heal. She also had to heal all of the INSIDE wounds from the surgery.
- My dog really, really wants to lick her paws. She’s like a little kid who chews her nails.
- Dogs really do live in the moment. Once her pain and swelling went down, she just bounced back energy-wise. If I’d had a major abdominal surgery, I would not want to go for a walk just a few days later. I’d still be in bed three weeks later!
- I had to adjust my expectations of myself to accommodate the intensive care needs of my dog. I work from home, so I’m lucky I was able to be there all the time, but I had to let go of lots of other things, like my own workouts and sparkling clean toilets. I had a new appreciation for just how upsetting it must be for someone who has to leave their dog all day while they convalesce. If you can arrange to work from home while this is going on for your dog, I would. But I realize that most can’t. This hurts my heart.
- I’m really lucky that I trust Dr. Dressler because handing her over to go under the knife was really, really scary.
- No matter how useful I’ve always known the book to be, I know now that it REALLY helps. I used the index multiple times a day to find something I needed to understand or remember.
In all, I’m feeling much better. Kanga feels much better, too, which helps.
Thanks for reading this. I don’t think I realized ahead of time how much better I would feel after I wrote all of this down! I hope it’s been helpful for you, too.
Before I go, though, I have three videos that you might want to see.
Videos of Dog Cancer Surgery with Dr. Dressler
Several years ago, Dr. Dressler had a cancer scare with his own wonderful dog, Bjorn. He made videos of their progress, including before, during the surgery, and after, when he finally got the biopsy results. These have been on this site for years, but I think they’re worth reviewing now, especially if you are facing dog cancer surgery for your own pup. It might help to see that even veterinarians feel overwhelmed, upset, and impatient about how long it takes to find out the biopsy results!
Don’t worry — the video of the biopsy surgery is not TOO graphic!
Even Dr. Dressler feels terrible waiting for the results!
Update: November 18, 2019
It’s been almost a year since Kanga’s surgery, and I have to say, she’s doing great. Her scans have all been clean and clear, and she’s eating and walking and relieving herself and playing just like ever. She still gets mistaken for a puppy, even though now she is eleven years old.
I could not be more grateful for her health. Not. More. Grateful.
Still, James and I are focusing on QUALITY OF LIFE over all else, because we feel like we escaped a terrible fate quite narrowly.
We still think of Kanga as having cancer, because we know that even with the tumor type she has, there is a chance that it metastasized.
Here is what we have been doing for the last year now:
- The dog cancer diet, as outlined by Dr. Dressler
- Healthy treats like berries, liver, and other yummies
- Apocaps CX, full dose for a 10 pound dog, daily to remind her apoptosis genes to keep monitoring for deranged, damaged, or old cells.
- Medicinal Mushrooms (whatever we can find, usually K9 Immunity) daily to boost the immune system.
- Sardines a few times a week for the omega 3’s
- Modified Citrus Pectin as an anti-metastatic
- EverPup with every meal to make sure she gets a multi-vitamin and digestive/joint support
- Daily walks to boost life quality
- Lots of pets and snuggles and Reiki
- Meditation sessions. I swear, she LOVES meditating twice a day! I have to set up a sort of duplex situation on my lap to make it work for both Kanga and Roo. Kanga’s on the pillow, here. But you can see both of them are in full-on “hound lounge.”
I know some people who have dog cancer would look at this list and think “you’re not doing everything, you’re not doing enough.” I know that because I see the long lists of supplements some folks give their dogs … sometimes twenty or thirty at a time.
But I don’t want to duplicate supplements or throw her body off. I want to give her the support she needs, and no more. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
This list has been enough, not too much, and not too little.
It addresses every single step in Full Spectrum Cancer Care. And I feel more strongly than ever that Dr. D has it right: there are things that can help most dogs, and we should use them. And then trust that it’s enough.
Whatever comes, I’m ready. At least, I think I am.
I still struggle to keep myself from worrying too much. Even now, when I told my husband James that I was going to update this article, he said “Aren’t you worrying we are jinxing it? It’s not yet a full year.”
But I am doing it anyway because I find that the best way for me to deal with my anxiety is to just FEEL it.
And once I felt how anxious I am that November 29, 2019, is just next week, I knew that I should update this article NOW. It’s not a magical date.
Like Dr. D says, there is no calendar with a date on it that tells me when Kanga will pass.
Superstitious thinking is normal, and I’m not going to beat myself up about it … but I also am not going to let it ruin another Thanksgiving!
Update: November 18, 2020
I was so superstitious about updating this article again, but here it is, a year later, and little Kanga is sassy and spunky as always. Here she is just a couple days ago, demanding to be taken out for a walk.
I could not be happier to report that Kanga still thrives. And while the rest of us wish the pandemic was history, she’s reveling in the extra attention she gets now that we are home 100% of the time!
As another Thanksgiving arrives, I am grateful for her and her love, and for her health.
Happy Thanksgiving to those in the U.S., and warm wishes to the rest of the globe.
Much Aloha and warm wishes to you and your dog. We’re all in this together!
Molly Jacobson, Editor
The Dog Cancer Survival Guide
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Molly Jacobson is a writer and also the editor of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, published by Maui Media. A lifelong dog lover and self-professed dog health nerd, she is all too familiar with dog cancer. She has been supporting readers of this blog since the beginning. Molly earned a BA from Tufts University, and after a career in bookselling and book publishing attended The Swedish Institute to become a licensed massage therapist in New York State, licensed by the medical board. Her fascination with health is both personal and global, and she is most proud of how this site and the associated publications have revolutionized not only our approach to dog health, but our own health.