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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. Laurie ODell on October 16, 2019 at 1:26 am

    I agree with Dr Dressler’s outlook. Our (at the time) nine year old Staffordshire terrier was diagnosed with a mast cell tumour which was removed surgically. Six months later another was found and it too was removed. In the meantime I had been researching dog cancer and implemented many of Dr Dressler’s recommendations, including an entirely new home made diet. She lost five pounds (a good thing), her coat became more shiny and thick and she had more energy. A third tumour was found a year later at the site of a recent rabies injection and it too was removed.
    Lexie lived to be 15 years five months and had no further mast cell tumours, and I refused further vaccinations as well. The last stage of her life was full of fun, activity and contentment and we are forever thankful for Dr Dressler’s book.
    The book cover is wonderful in our opinion as it showcases the close relationship dog owners have with their dogs. It is because of this unique relationship that we choose to learn all we can about cancer and to support our companions for however long they live.
    They crush our hearts when they leave us but we know we have done all we could.

  2. Lexi Gonsales on October 15, 2019 at 6:14 am

    Thank you, for this newsletter to pop up in my email today, as my little Frenchie, Bartsie is at the oncologist right, now, undergoing a spleen biopsy as we are staging his mast cell carcinoma. Needless to say, I’m on pins and needles, but your newsletter just peeked me up.
    BTW your book is fantastic and before I had even gone to Bartsie’s initial oncology consult, I had already familiarized myself with his cancer and was armed with knowledge and questions.
    Thank you.

  3. Jen on December 19, 2017 at 4:54 pm

    Is liver cancer addressed in the book

    • Amber Drake on December 20, 2017 at 3:42 am

      Hello, Jen.

      Yes, liver cancer is addressed in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide in several sections. Do you currently have a copy? If you do have a copy, the information about liver cancer can be found on pages: 154, 299, 302, 337, and 337-345. And, the beginning chapters of the book apply to all types of cancer.

      Please let us know if we can be of further assistance.

      Warm wishes.

  4. Karen on May 22, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Dear Dr Dressler,
    It has been 6 months since our then about to turn 6 year old Bernese was diagnosed with lymphoma. From a prognosis of 4 weeks survival if left untreated, and in the space of the week after diagnosis where the vet initially said predisnone only and the key should be that she should not suffer, and after I pushed him on what I had found on this and other websites, we now have a dog who has been in complete remission for four months now. We bought your book and opted for the Madison Protocol chemo and She is happy, bouncy, barks and chases other dogs and has been in good form for most the time with only the occasional bout of diarrhoea. One bout lasted a week and was pretty awful for all of us indoors but otherwise it was not serious. Her last treatment (doxorubicin) is in two weeks. It has been a long slog as we drive a 300km round trip to the university hospital for her treatments in what has been an unrelenting winter; I have had to arrange it with work and it is in the same time frame as exams for my daughter. The biggest challenge has been diet as we were trying everything you suggested and unfortunately we did not to get the home diet quite right as she seemed to lose weight on that so the hospital told us to mix the home diet (mainly oily fish and we buy salmon, sardines and mackerel in industrial quantities) with the Hills Prescription. I am not sure but Apocaps which we had to order online from abroad seemed to coincide with the diarrhoea. So we left it but perhaps once the chemo ends we should resume as we enter uncharted, unstructured waters.She is back to her pre illness weight but it fluctuates and we do not always get the Hills as it has to be ordered from the vet.We have had so much luck, the vet is surprised and happy he told us to take the risk, she reacts fine to chemo, the hospital staff know and love her as she is so bouncy and she seems far happier than the period just before she fell ill when I thought she was just growing old as she seemed slow. We now enter an uncertain phase and we are not sure what to do as the certainty of chemo disappears and we know she can’t be cured. But it has been 6 wonderful months.

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on May 30, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      Hi Karen
      well, all things considered, it sounds pretty good under the circumstances. good life quality is good!
      as long as you have read the Guide and discussed all your options with the vet, I think you are on the right track. As to the diarrhea, try halving the apocaps dose and giving it with a full meal but please discuss with your vet too in case i am missing something. could add slippery elm and probiotics too (discuss with your vet, again).

  5. Sue B. on April 17, 2013 at 1:37 am

    Dear Dr. Dressler,
    I’m very thankful having found your book and have gained a greater understanding about canine cancer. However, I have to also admit that all the information has been somewhat overwhelming for me. Perhaps it’s because I found your book during the emotional turmoil I was experiencing when my dog was diagnosed with carcinoma. My Rottie (Duke) is 8.4 years old and he has been such a loving, faithful, protective teddy bear. I discoved a lump/swelling in his hind leg early December 2012 and after so many testings and second opinion from an oncologist, he was diagnosed with carcinoma early March 2013. Ultrasound revealed that he had a mass/dead tumor on top of his bladder. Unfortunately, my husband and I could not agree on pursuing chemo and radiation therapy for my rottie. Therefore, I was determined to find an alternative treatment plan for him. I gathered as much information from your book as possible and got started on following your cancer diet and purchased the apocaps and k-9 immunity plus supplements. Duke’s appetite started decreasing early April and so I started to find different food options, including cooking for him the recipe in your book. I was so excited and felt so optimistic that I was going to help him because I wanted to make sure he knew and felt that I was not giving up on him. Duke devoured the food the first day and still the next day. I felt so happy because he seemed energetic and back to his playful self. However, his appetite has taken a nose dive for the past week. I’ve tried can food, treats…just about anything, but he may eat it one time and then will refuse it. I may be rambling so I’m very sorry, but I’m just feeling so sad, and have been crying off an on today as he has definitely regressed drastically. He seems weak and sad. I’ve tried to remain optimistic with him and I know I’m not suppose to cry in front of him, but I had to cry with him today in fear that I may not get a chance to express my love and everything I want to say to him tomorrow. I feel that he is slipping away and feel so much sadness. I’ve had to cut back on giving him the apocaps and other supplements other than Piroxicam, because he is not eating all that much. I have an appt with his vet this Thursday to do a recheck. I feel frustrated at the same time because his regular vet does not seem well informed about alternative cancer treatment/supplements and he will be monitoring Duke instead of the oncologist because we did not go through with chemo and radiation. Can any one give me any advice/guidance? I’m desparate and feel alone in this. I’m trying to fight for him and remain optimistic, but it breaks my heart to see him in his current state. What else can I do? Do I need to consider letting him rest in peace? Thank you so much in advance for your support and guidance.

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on April 24, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Hi Sue
      this sounds very hard.
      first, might consider (all under veterinary supervision) dropping the piroxicam, and starting some famotidine and/or sucralfate in the off chance that med is irritating the lining of his stomach.
      Hopefully appetite will return. Mirtazapine (mainly) and ginger/slippery elm may help a bit. Once there, consider half doses of oral neoplasene along with ongoing mirtazapine so the neoplasene does not sicken your dog. your vet needs to order it with what you are currently doing, +/- the piroxicam.
      And if all is going downhill, a post for you:
      I hope this helps
      Dr D

  6. jackie nolen on April 2, 2013 at 10:17 am

    As a follow up to my post above – we did return for her visit in 7 days after the first dose of adriamycin and Lola was doing so well they put off the vincristine for one week. she was to return for another check up visit in 7 days and she did receive the vincristine on that visit. Her doctor said her blood work was great and lymph nodes are still feeling normal. She did reduce her prednisone from 5 mg. every other day to 2.5 mg. every other day and we will monitor to see if there are any changes in her appetite and mood at the lower dosage. So although the cancer cannot be cured we are very optimistic for her immediate future and will continue to have postive thoughts and enjoy every day we have left with her.

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on April 10, 2013 at 5:58 pm

      Dear Jackie
      great…keep us posted and keep up the good work!
      Dr D

  7. jackie nolen on March 9, 2013 at 10:38 am

    thank you so much for your quick response. we took lola back to her doctor and after blood tests her vet said she is out of remission and she had her first treatment of adriamycin yesterday. after discussing options with her vet after diagnosis we did not start her with the adriamycin chemo drug because of her age and the possibility of heart problems. her vet started her out with just vincristine and pred as a kind of maintenance program and she responded great for three months with the lymph nodes shrinking so much they were undetectable to us, never losing her appetite or spunky personality but i have learned much since then and would probably have started with the adriamycin. It is the next day after adriamycin and other than her feeling very lethargic last night and again today and not very hungry she has had no other side effects. her vet did prescribe cerenia in case of nausea but she has not needed them yet but i understand she could still experience vomiting and diarrhea several days after adriamycin. In hindsight we should have started with the adriamycin but were devastated over the diagnosis, did not have time to do much research, and felt we needed to start doing something immediately. Our options here in Arkansas are limited but we were referred to the best animal hospital available in central arkansas. Right now the plan is to return for a follow up visit in 7 days and do blood work and if all is good we will continue to use the vincristine once a week, 5 mg of pred a day, and then another treatment of adriamycin in 4-5 weeks. My husband and i have discussed the different options as well as the financial liability and agree to continue treatment as long as her quality of life is not diminished or our bank account depleted. I find the articles and blog posts very helpful on your website to me mentally and in making decisions for Lola’s care. I don’t feel so alone now! Any suggestions to our plan of attack would be greatly appreciated.

  8. jackie nolen on February 25, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    I was so happy to find your website. I believe as well that a positive outlook is best for my dog as well as me as we fight this battle together. My Lola, a beagle/lab/cocker??? mix was diagnosed with lymphoma end of Nov. 2012. We believe she is minimum 11 yrs. old-not sure as she was a stray. We started chemo treatments first week of Dec. – vincristine every 7 days for 6 weeks and now every 9-10 days as well as prednizone starting at 10 mg. per day which has been reduced to 5 mg. every 2-3 days. She has responded well to treatment and all lymph nodes went down after first couple of treatments. She has never slowed down eating or drinking or slowed down in her enjoyment of life other than one would expect from an older dog before or after diagnosis. I have downloaded the dog cancer diet and am anxious to incorporate into our treatment. Are there supplements we might ask our vet about? We just noticed tonight that her lymph nodes in her neck and under one front leg have swollen a little. They had reduced so much it was difficult to feel them. Is this normal after 9-10 chemo treatments? Thanks again for your site and i expect to be a regular visitor.

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on March 1, 2013 at 12:23 pm

      Is your dog only getting vincristine and pred? In general a mutli-agent CHOP chemo protocol is recommended for lymphoma – higher remission rates, longer remission durations and longer survival times. Obviously I cannot make specific recommendations for your pet, but check out the Guide for the complete chapter on lymphoma and there is a ton of info on supplements. Ans don’t forget to discuss everything with your vet/oncologist.
      Good luck to you and Lola!
      All my best, Dr Sue

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on March 6, 2013 at 4:45 pm

      Dear Jackie,
      Glad you are taking a proactive approach in helping your dog with positive guardianship!
      First thing to do is make sure the lymph node is not a get that checked by your vet. As to supplements and what else can be done, perhaps this post will help you get started!
      Dr D

  9. Pam on February 19, 2013 at 3:16 am

    Pattu, my 10.5 year old golden retriever, Phoebe, had her first Immunocidin injections on 2/15; however, she has a recurrence of mammary gland adenocarcinoma rather than osteosarcoma. Hoping and praying that with the 85% success rate of this new treatment that she can beat the odds. Prayers to you and your Dobie!


  10. Pattu on February 2, 2013 at 11:11 am

    My 7 year old Dobie was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma on Jan. 21, 2013. The lump just appeared on her leg….hard to believe. We are not choosing amputation. Lexi has been started on Immunocidin shots every other week and IV Vit. C therapy. She is also on Mycoforte Mushrooms, Essiac, Artemesinin and Butryex along with no carbs, sugar and high proteins and eating very healthy. Has anyone had any success with Immunocidin and the IV Vit C therapy and if so, what else were you using ? Thanks.

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