My dog has cancer, and even after over ten years of helping others coping with dog cancer on this site and in our private Facebook group for readers of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, I can honestly say: there are still things for me to learn.
Cancer is, in a word, awful. It’s not just that it is disgusting and horrible and vicious. It’s that it is sneaky, underhanded, and great at figuring out how to survive everything we do to contain it.
When you are facing a foe like this one, it’s good to have support. That’s why I have been collecting answers from other dog lovers fighting this disease to answer the question
What do I wish I knew right off the bat?
I’m sure there are many, many things I will add to this article over the years to come. But for now, here are the most important answers from wise dog lovers who are fighting this fight ahead of you.
If your dog has cancer, this is the book to get. Like, today.
The most important thing to do is, of course, to keep breathing, as Cathy points out:
It’s true, a cancer diagnosis can literally take your breath away. That’s why Dr. Dressler puts emotional management exercises right up front in chapter 2. And the first is Take Three Deep Breaths.
Why is deep breathing so important?
Because we cannot learn unless we are in rest and digest — and when we are trying to understand our dog’s cancer and decide what to do, we MUST be able to learn.
Also, when we are calm, our dog is more calm. And that helps him or her to fight cancer.
When you take three deep, deliberate breaths, you activate the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system. When that system is activated, your “fight or flight” system HAS to go to sleep. In fact, recent research has shown that in order to stop the adrenaline cocktail of fight or flight, we can activate the rest and digest system by breath alone. When Dr. D included this in the book, this hadn’t been so thoroughly studied. But here is a good way to stimulate your rest and digest system so you can calm down, be present, and focus. I do this multiple times a day:
Breathe in through the nose for a count of five.
One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi, Four Mississippi, Five Mississippi
Hold for a count of One Mississippi
Breathe out for a count of five.
One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi, Four Mississippi, Five Mississippi
Repeat at least 8 times!
If you can breathe at a rate of about 5-7 breaths per minute, you will trigger the rest and digest system. So, maybe it shouldn’t be Three Deep Breaths in the book. Maybe it should be Five to Seven Deep Breaths.
Be Your Dog’s Health Advocate
This is another big one. The fact is that no one, and I mean no one, will advocate for your dog the way you will. Eileen agrees:
Having no regrets is a major goal here at dogcancerblog.com. We all regret our dog’s getting cancer, of course. But we won’t regret decisions we make to help our dog, especially if they are informed, considered, and based on the best information and resources we have. Read this article on your role as Guardian here.
Diagnosis Isn’t Always Easy and Can Take a While
Cynthia and Rob both know the pain of dog cancer diagnosis: there is no one, definitive test. Sometimes, blood work isn’t enough, and sometimes even imaging isn’t enough.
It’s easy to blame veterinarians for not catching it sooner, but the reality is that ALL cancers are caught “too late.” Cancerous cells are probably in our bodies (and our dogs’ bodies) all the time — but a perfect storm of awfulness is required for those cells to take root and grow. This excerpt from the book helps to address the question “Why didn’t my vet catch this sooner?”
Don’t Watch and Wait: Get Imaging Done on a Regular Basis
I can personally attest to this: a dog might not have a visible lump to test. And if they do, sometimes vets want to “watch and wait.”
Make sure that you follow the Rule of One, as Dr. Ettinger calls it.
And here’s another book excerpt to tell you how we diagnose and stage cancer.
Get a Specialist On Board Quickly
Sometimes we think that our veterinarian, who has handled EVERYTHING so beautifully so far, should be able to handle cancer, as well. But if you had cancer, would you expect your GP to know all the best ways to treat it, and how to test for it accurately?
Getting a second opinion from a boarded oncologist is ALWAYS a good idea, but especially if you think you might use chemotherapy or radiation. In fact, having an oncologist supervise your tests — including the biopsy — can even save you money.
Like Karen points out, even a huge veterinary university hospital has its limits! Get a specialist on board if you can.
Prognosis Is a Guess, Not a Death Sentence
Do you know what the word “prognosis” means?
So when you hear, “six weeks” or “two months” remember: it’s just a guess!
Here’s how Dr. Ettinger thinks about the numbers we use to answer the question: how much time do I have?
Your Dog Doesn’t Think About Time the Way You Do
Mike Hall really nails this one piece of advice that many readers have for you: dogs are about unconditional love in the moment, not living a long time.
This is always helpful to me. Whenever I get sad about my Kanga and Roo getting older, whenever I think about how little time I (might) have left with them, I remember that one fantastic day for them is like a lifetime of pleasure. So, more days of snuggling, running on the beach, and delicious meals and playtime!
Think Outside the Box
This advice comes up over and over, and is exactly why Dr. Dressler first wrote The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Life Quality and Longevity.
There is no “one right way” to treat cancer. It’s not like a broken leg. It’s sneaky and vicious and fights on many fronts. So …
We fight on all fronts. Dr. Dressler’s Full Spectrum approach literally incorporates everything from chemo to prayer/good vibes: as long as it has been shown it might help, it’s included.
Don’t think your veterinarian can be so open-minded? Look for Full Spectrum veterinarians in the comments on this post.
Quality of Life Matters to Your Dog (and to You)
We can really get caught up in the intricacies of cancer treatments. We can also spend a lot of money on them, as Katie points out:
But in Full Spectrum cancer care, many of the treatments we use are FREE, because they focus on life quality.
This doesn’t mean we “give up” on our dog. It means we keep our head clear (using that deep breathing, right?) and we choose options that make sense for OUR dog and for US.
Ask the hard questions of your veterinarian about what the unseen cost of treatments are. It’s not just money you are spending. It’s time and possibly, life quality. Get as firm an idea ahead of time as you can.
There May Be a Time to Let Go
As Britta points out, and as Dr. Dressler recommends, a great technique to use is list-making. Right away, make your list of quality of life items for your dog:
And when you start to wonder about whether “that time” is near, please take those deep breaths and don’t panic. There are warning signs when life draws to an end, and if you know what they are, it will help.
In the end, it can surprise even the most “rational” and stoic of humans, like it surprised Millie:
If you feel the inevitable guilt, just remember it is normal. And it doesn’t mean you were a bad parent. Here’s an article that might help give you some perspective.
You Might Feel Guilty About Things You Didn’t Know
It’s REALLY common for us to find out that something we thought was a normal, basic lifestyle choice could have contributed to our dog’s cancer. Even though there isn’t one thing that will definitely cause cancer in dogs, we still can feel really, really, REALLY guilty if we did something, used something, or fed something that might have helped cancer take root.
But really, honestly, keep this in mind: cancer is the number one killer of dogs because of countless reasons. It’s not just because you used a flea/tick medication. It’s not just because you used lawn chemicals (or the city did). It’s also because our entire environment is now awash in toxins. That is having an effect on our health, and our dogs’ health, as well.
Ask Questions and Don’t Make Assumptions
Karen makes a series of excellent points in her post:
There is a lot to understand, and a lot that your experts might not actually know. And it can feel like you are all alone when it comes to making decisions. That’s when a good Treatment Plan Analysis can help.
Further Reading & Research About Vagal Nerve Stimulation
Natural Vagus Nerve Stimulation, by Dr. Ariell Schwartz
Vagus Nerve Exercises from the Anxiety Recovery Centre of Victoria
Wellness Mama’s excellent article on How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Function
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.