When I first read The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, I was astonished to find out what our number one priority should be when it comes to helping our dogs with cancer.
According to author Dr. Demian Dressler, our priority has nothing to do with our dog’s illness.
“Right out of veterinary school, I would have said ‘Figure out which treatment is going to help the most,’” Dr. Dressler writes.
“But today, after years of experience and research, and with still no magical cure for cancer, I have a different answer.
Your first priority is to clear your mind and heart of emotional upset, to manage the negative emotions as much as possible.
Your second priority is to ramp up your positive emotions and reconnect with your deepest love for your dog.
Nothing else – and I mean nothing else – is more important. It’s your absolute first priority.
All of your treatment decisions, all of your actions, will benefit from this first step. And it’s the most important way to help your dog all along the way.”
There are two reasons why this is so important, as Dr. Dressler points out in his book.
All of your treatment decisions, all of your actions, will benefit from this first step.
Dogs Pick Up on Our Mental and Emotional State
The first reason it’s important to calm down is that our dogs pick up on our emotions.
When we’re agitated, depressed, angry, guilty, resentful, confused, blaming, afraid, frustrated, exhausted, or any of the other very common reactions to our dog’s cancer, our dogs pick up on it.
They might not understand our reasons for being upset – but they understand that we ARE upset.
Dogs naturally want us to be happy, content, and calm. They feel bad when we feel bad. It’s part of the power of our bond.
But it doesn’t help our dogs to feel down when they have cancer. In fact, it might be quite the opposite.
That’s why Dr. Dressler’s included what he calls Brain Chemistry Modification in his Full Spectrum approach to cancer.
Brain chemistry modification is all about increasing your dog’s joy quotient and minimizing any sources of depression.
And since our emotional state directly impacts the emotional state of our dogs, it’s critical that we manage our own emotions in a responsible way.
A Brain under Stress Makes Bad Decisions
The second reason managing our emotional state is so important is that a brain under stress can make bad decisions.
Numerous studies show that when we are emotionally upset, our brains tend to shut down critical thinking.
There are lots of things that can happen next:
- We lose the ability to see the big picture.
- We can’t learn new information.
- We latch onto a piece of information that matches our emotions or beliefs, and ignore other facts that don’t match.
- We tend to not listen well, which means we have a hard time understanding what’s going on.
- We have a hard time remembering information.
When we’re under stress, we tend to fall back on unconscious patterns, rather than logic, to make decisions.
We have an instinctive tendency to make automatic decisions, without processing all of the available information.
This can lead to disastrous results when we face big decisions about how to treat our dog.
Here are two examples of ways that brains under stress can mess up:
- Alice tends to trust authority figures, and likes to think that when an expert is “in charge,” all is going to turn out well. So when her vet tells her “surgery might help reduce the tumor and give us more time,” she actually hears “I’ll take that tumor out completely, and then your dog will be cured.” Alice decides to do the surgery, but ends up broken-hearted (and angry) when her dog’s cancer isn’t completely cured.
- John once watched a relative go through chemotherapy, and it was painful and terrible, and in the end, his loved one died. When the vet recommends chemotherapy for his dog, he assumes that the treatments will also be painful and terrible, and that they won’t help. He declines chemo for his dog’s lymphoma, and then later obsesses about whether it was the right choice, given the statistics on that type of cancer.
We Experience More Stress in Uncertain Situations
Even the most logical of human minds don’t think well under stress. This is especially true if there is a great deal of complexity in the situation, or if there are big gaps in knowledge.
When we are under stress, we want to KNOW the answers to our questions.
We feel as if we must find out the answers to every question we have, and we search and demand and ask until we are satisfied.
Unfortunately, when it comes to cancer, we usually don’t have nearly enough information.
In fact, one of the most sobering things Dr. Dressler relates in his book is how very little we really know about cancer.
We rarely know exactly how it started, exactly why it started, exactly when it started, if it has definitely spread, if it is definitely going to spread, if a treatment “will work” or not …
… and possibly worst question of all: how much time does my dog have?
The answer to all of these questions is usually “We’re not sure.”
And that answer is likely to drive a brain under stress crazy. It makes for great distraction.
We can’t focus on anything else.
We can’t accept that answer and move on to more important topics … because we don’t believe that there are more important topics!
We Must Assume Our Brains Aren’t Working Well Now
When dealing with dog cancer, we must, no matter how rational or unemotional we tend to be in our regular life, assume that our brains aren’t working at their best.
And we must do something about it, for the sake of our dogs.
“Like it or not, you are the ‘X factor’ in treating your dog’s cancer,” Dr. Dressler once told us.
“Your mind and heart can be your best advisors, or your worst enemies.”
Reading Chapter 2 Is Mission Critical
For this very reason, chapter 2 in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide is filled with “mission-critical” emotional management techniques.
Dr. Dressler has put together exercises – most of which take only a few minutes – that can reduce stress, calm down negative emotions, and clear the mind.
He puts them right upfront because they will be needed as you read the rest of the book, consult with your veterinarian, and interact with your dog.
If you like listening to stuff like this, I recommend getting The Dog Cancer Coping Guide, which was Dr. Dressler’s very first publication about dog cancer.
It’s an hour long, and in it, he leads you through several of the exercises that show up in his book.
It’s calming to listen to.
Dr. Dressler also talks about emotional management in several seminars in the Ask Dr. Dressler seminar series. For example, this one will give you amazing insight into how your grief can interact with your dog’s cancer.
Emotional Management Is Foundational to Every Effort
Emotional management can feel like a waste of time to those of us who are really goal-driven.
But in fact, we’ve seen over and over that taking the time and energy to clear our minds and hearts leads to better decisions.
And better decisions mean better help for our dogs.
When your dog has cancer, there is little help that feels like “real help.”
All any of us want to do is just make it all go away.
We wish we could just make our dog better.
It’s our sincere hope that as you practice the exercises, calm down, and get support as you need it, your connection to your dog will deepen and strengthen.
Because really, all our dogs want is to feel good.
And when we are calm and clear, we can often find a way to help that happen … especially when we’re able to learn without distractions.
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.