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

Is Optimism Appropriate in Dog Cancer?

Updated: January 13th, 2021


Are we setting ourselves up for disappointment by holding on to optimism when it comes to dog cancer treatments?

I recently received a message from a guardian who felt that perhaps the approach in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide leaned towards “pushing the positive”.

Her feeling was that when one’s own dog does not live to published median life expectancy, taking an optimistic approach was not that useful. Her dog lived 6 months after diagnosis.

Now, here’s a story that shows the opposite side of the coin:

A couple of weeks ago, I had a birthday picnic with family in the park up on the side of the mountain where I live.  A woman ran up to me with tears in her eyes and a bottle of wine.

She explained that I had given her dog an extra 6 months of life after she had given up based on what the previous vets said.  She hugged me and gave me the wine as a gift.

So, who was “right?”

Is it better to think “Wow, another six months!” or “Oh, no, only six months!”?

The woman who felt that the 6 months of added longevity was too little time to warrant an optimistic mindset?

Or the woman who felt that the 6 months extra was an undreamed-of treasure?

Well, it all depends on the viewpoint of the person looking at the situation.

Neither is right, and neither is wrong, either. However, the woman who gave me the wine seemed more content and at ease with her decisions.

And that maybe the nub of it: what’s “right” depends on how well we are thinking.

The Human Mind: Great Servant, Terrible Master

When one is dealing with a challenge, the mindset taken sets you up for success (or failure).

The mind is a strange thing. It sometimes takes us places that don’t always serve us or produce the best possible outcomes. That’s in part because when we are dealing with strong emotions (and who isn’t when it comes to dog cancer) it changes the way our mind works.

In short, stress makes us less smart than normal. It’s harder to think, it’s harder to take in information, and it’s harder to made decisions. That’s why I always say your first priority should be to get the right mindset. Here’s a chapter from my book that describes this mindset and why it is so important.

Sometimes, left to its own devices, the mind can actually lead us to make decisions that later we wish we hadn’t.  Often this is because there is missing information, or because we choose to only look at some of the information.

Again, stress makes it nearly impossible to gather the data we need to make good decisions.

I cannot say for sure, but I suspect that the woman who felt the book was “too optimistic” may have been filtering out the many, many, MANY times I say that there is no silver bullet when it comes to dog cancer.

There is no one cure for cancer that we can reliably give. That’s true for every single cancer case. There is literally no guarantee.

If you ignore all those warnings and just focus on how many lifestyle changes, supplements, diet changes, and conventional treatments may help, yes, perhaps I can see that it’s too optimistic.

But I suspect that her grief and fear made her skip over the important information about median survival time not being a guarantee for individual dogs.

She thought “oh good, survival time is 6 months” and thought it applied to her dog. Even though median survival times are not guaranteed timeframes.

If your dog has cancer you should get this book.

So Should We Embrace Optimism?

But, what about this question of optimism in the face of a dog cancer diagnosis? Once we get our emotions calmed down and take a look at our dog’s unique situation, should we be optimistic, even when the numbers aren’t?

Well, I think so, yes. Why?

Because: dogs.

Dogs are optimistic. So I think we should be optimistic too.

You don’t have to be optimistic about everything, you realize. Perhaps your dog’s case was caught really late, and you are pretty sure the worst-case scenario will be your scenario.

You can still be optimistic about changing the diet, because your dog will like it more.

You can be optimistic about using supportive supplements and medications that help her to feel better quickly.

You can feel optimistic about your relationship with your dog, even as you pre-mourn.

You don’t have to be Pollyanna. But you can certainly embrace optimism about something, anything, related to your dog.

Optimism Is a Brave Choice

Optimism also counters cancer. Cancer itself is a profoundly negative issue.

Discussing cancer is negative.

Survival times can be negative.

Finances can be negative.

Dealing with life while also dealing with dog cancer can be negative.

Treatments can be negative.

So … just about everything about cancer is negative.

If one allows this to overwhelm the outlook, it can be paralyzing as a guardian.

But paralysis does not help us to manage cancer.

That’s why, as veterinarians and dog lovers ourselves, Dr. Ettinger and I deliberately choose to approach dog cancer with an optimistic slant meant to fight all this negativity.

And the wonderful thing is that most guardians have been able to not only help their dogs but also help themselves by tipping the scale to a more positive outcome.

Do we have a cancer cure? Not yet.  But there is a lot that can be said for doing what can be done to maintain positivity during times as difficult as dog cancer.


Dr D


Leave a Comment

  1. Duchie’s Mom on January 15, 2021 at 7:49 am

    I am currently and quickly, approaching the paralysis. I have a German Shepherd named Duchess who just turned 8 November 21st. I knew something was wrong as I have been to her life long vet 5 times In two months only to get brushed off, a worrier, he even used to roll his eyes at me. I finally went to another vet, he found a lump. She had surgery December 9th to have it removed. Came back malignant and chest X-ray not good. That’s all I’ve been able to tell, text or say to ANYONE. Anyway, I never comment. I just wanted to thank all of you for letting me read. I think if I didn’t know there was anyone else in the world going thru this right now I’d go crazy. Although I don’t wish it on my worst enemy. I am crushed and her and I have been best friends since the day I brought her home at 8wks old. I can’t imagine my life without her. It’s hard to hide feelings from Duchess. She’s very smart and can definitely sense my nervous energy and trying so hard. Otherwise I can’t shed a tear in front of her or she gets upset. My heart goes out to each and every dog lover out there. Thank you all for letting me read almost daily. This article gave me new hope.
    God help us all ❤️

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