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

Attitude Adjustment in Coping With Canine Cancer

Updated: October 18th, 2018

One of the most shocking discoveries for some guardians starting their dog cancer journey is there seem to be few options.

These guardians go to the vet or oncologist, and many times return from the visit with a very heavy burden that seems to have little relief. And strangely, it happens to those who ask the most questions about how things will turn out for their loved dog.

There are a few points that are rarely brought up at the vet’s or oncologists that we should all look at.  By “we”, I include myself as a practicing veterinarian and hospital owner.  First, there is something called a skew.  For those not very interested in math, sorry, but you will want to know this because it relates to your dog’s lifespan (longevity).

Oncologists use word called the median to talk about survival time. This is the point in time when half of the patients are still alive.  But the problem is that it really is a very crummy number to look at (but its all we got, so bear with me…)  So a median life expectancy is a “centralizing” measure, or getting close to or around a target to get a rough idea.  An average is another centralizing measure.  Here, the target we are interested in is, ” how long my dog will live with this cancer and treatment.”

But here’s why it’s crummy….and now we go back to the skews. Say the median life expectancy your oncologist talks about is 8 months with a given treatment.  So half the dogs in the study were alive 8 months into it.  Okay, but what if the data had a right skew?  This means that of the dogs who lived longer than 8 months, survival time was all over the board. There were some that passed at 10 months, others at 15, others at 20. And of course in the spirit of full disclosure there is also a left skew, where the patients living less than 8 months had lifespans all over the place too.

Why are we talking statistics in a blog about dog cancer? Well, for one, to perhaps loosen the hold the question “how long, Doc?” has on how we feel.  The estimates are often imprecise, and sometimes have nothing whatsoever to do with how things really turn out.

So that’s skews.

As usual, there is more to consider.

When a vet or oncologist gives an answer to “how long, Doc?”, all guardians should be on alert of an event that happens when you hear the information.  The number of days, weeks, months or years in the answer will color how you go about dealing with your dog.  And because these estimates are by their very nature very rough, this impact may actually be detrimental to the outcome.

Here’s what I mean.  You hear the news, “8 months”.  Maybe this throws you into a deep despair (as it would me).   But now this despair interferes with your Guardianship, which I view as being a “vigilant protector”.  You do not get the information you would otherwise since your brain is filled with chemicals that interfere with motivation and memory.  And guess what….the outcome is influenced.  Under these conditions you may not pay attention to diet, chemo, supplements, apoptogens, surgery, immune support, radiation, brain chemistry modification, and all the other tools discussed in the Guide.

And your dog may actually have two factors working against her: the cancer and the effect of words spoken in the exam room.

She might have been one that would have lived two or three times the median life expectancy!

(Note that the first part of the Guide is geared towards helping guardians deal with this stuff so they can be excellent vigilant protectors for their four legged family members.)

Finally, take note… most of the papers look at one of more of the conventional cancer tools: surgery, chemo or radiation.  But we remember that old saying, “To a carpenter with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  We now have many tools in the wonderful world of Full Spectrum Care.  And these have effects that add up, beyond chemo, surgery and radiation.

For example, does feeding a dog Big Macs for every meal create disease eventually?  Of course.  So….does diet impact disease?  Can diet be used as a tool to help?  This is a simple example, but sadly rather large topics like diet are often ignored in conventional veterinary care.  Facts like these were another reason the Guide was written.

So, what’s the take home message?  It comes down to avoiding dogma (bad pun, sorry).  Take the information you get and use it.  Consider the median life expectancy.  But at the same time, do not swallow a median life expectancy as if it is fact for your dog.  Disregard it partially so you can embrace doing all you can.


Dr D

Leave a Comment

  1. Maria Hon on September 30, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    I tried to buy Apocaps via Amazon but they don’t ship to Hong Kong. My dog, has Hemangiopercycoma since Oct 2011 and his first recurrent on June 2012. I really try to help him but there is no radiation treatment in Hong Kong. I currently feed him with Chinese mushroom tablets and budwig diet. This is my last hope. Please let me know how I can purchase Apocaps and ship to Hong Kong. Thanks

  2. Debbie Sellman on August 5, 2012 at 4:59 am

    Just got Cancer diagnosis and have been walking around in a stupor for the last 4 days. I am going to buy your book and change my attitude. Hopefully this will help my beloved Morgan live a little longer and a little happier.

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on August 10, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Debbie, Good luck to you and your dog. I hope you like the book.
      All my best, Dr Sue

  3. Ellie on July 27, 2012 at 6:48 am

    My Golden retriever was diagnosed with lymphoma in his brain last September when he was 3 years old. The prognosis was 6 to 9 months. We started him on chemo immediately and he got the drugs for 6 months. My oncologist said to keep doing whatever I would have been doing if he was healthy until and unless he was physically unable. So I kept training him for hunt tests and obedience trials. He passed 3 Master Hunt tests and his CDX while he was on chemo, and has since passed a 4th Master test. Nine months after diagnosis, he looks and feels great. At some point he may relapse, but that could be a year from now or never. I’m hoping for “never” of course. In the meantime, I’m enjoying having my little miracle dog, who went from being unable to walk because of the CNS lymphoma to running Hunt tests with the best dogs out there.

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on August 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm

      Yay Ellie’s Golden!

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on August 10, 2012 at 9:43 am

      Thanks for sharing his story and good luck. Keep us updated!
      All my best, Dr Sue

  4. Ann M McHugh on July 27, 2012 at 4:00 am

    I agree that what you hear the vet say when he gives you a diagnosis of Cancer in your dog can totally change the outcome of treatment. And what you “hear” may be different than what your vet said! Many owners hear the word cancer and give up which is so wrong. Each dog is different in how they deal with cancer and each cancer is different. Over 20 yes ago w had a sweet American Eskimo diagnosed with inoperable bladder cancer and there was little beyond std chemo that we could try as it was before the discovery that piroxicam can slow the cancer’ s growth. Muffet was just 10 yes old with a prognosis of maybe 6 months. We never gave up on her, changed her diet, added vitamins, did chemo, homeopathic treatments, and above all loved her. She fooled all the vets and lived 26 months. The cancer finally showed up in her shoulder and we tried me last form of chemo. It wasn’t until she went off into the woods around our house “to die” that we let her go the next day in our arms at the vets office. Of those 26 months she had maybe a dozen or so “bad days” which was a great tradeoff to have her so long. What if we would have given up before we actually tried? Dogs pick up on our emotions, but we never let her see the negative- she went on a couple of vacations and had no clue she was on borrowed time. Until the thought of subjecting her to too much discomfort for little return of more time came up we never said goodbye or gave up. I will fight for the health for all my dogs despite poor diagnosis, because all life is precious and they deserve every chance. I heartily recommend Dr Dressler’s book as it helped me have more time with my heart dog who had stomach cancer last summer. I now cook more for my dogs and follow many of Dr Dressler’s recommendations for long healthy canine lives.

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on August 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks Ann!
      Dr D

  5. Kathy Maranville on July 27, 2012 at 2:56 am

    I have a dog with lymphoma. He has t-cell with bone marrow involvement. He was diagnosed in May and is doing great so far. The problem I find is the expense of the chemo treatment makes it hard to do some of the other things that might help. I have a 101lb lab and just to feed him for his cancer is costing me around 150.00 a month. I do supplement with fish oil, but have not yet added anything else. I also have two other dogs that I need to take care of.

    My oncologist told me up front not to look at the statistics and think my dog would only last 6 to 8 months. He said he has many long term survivors. I am determined to make mine one of them.

    What has helped me the most in dealing with his cancer is the support groups that you can join. There are many people on them that have dogs that have lived for years after diagnosis. You just never know it could be your dog that does. I try to keep the survival time in perspective. I year in a dogs life is a lot longer for them than it is for us when considering the different lifespans. We try to make every day we have with our dog a good one and include him in as many activities as we can. He is happy and for now feeling good.


    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on August 10, 2012 at 9:39 am

      Thanks for your post. Statistics are to give us a reasonable expectation, but I too have had dogs with T-cell lymphoma do better that B-cell dogs.
      And I love your positive attitude.
      If he is off prednisone, I would add Apocaps – I do in my pateints at slightly lower dose while on chemo. Of course, tell your vet if you add them. Good luck!
      All my best, Dr Sue

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