Dr. Dressler: an Introduction to The Dog Cancer Vet - Dog Cancer Blog

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

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Dr. Dressler: an Introduction to The Dog Cancer Vet

Demian Dressler, DVM, is a general practice veterinarian with a special interest in dog cancer. He’s been a pioneer in educating dog lovers about the number one killer of dogs since well before he started writing here on www.DogCancerBlog.com in 2007.

The best way to learn about Dr. D’s background is to read, the following, from the Introduction to his best-selling animal health book The Dog Cancer Survival Guide. It starts decades ago, with a “dark night of the soul” when he realized just how little he had learned about — and how few tools conventional veterinarians had — for dog cancer. He explains his Full Spectrum Cancer Care Approach, and why you must remember: There is no expiration date when it comes to your dog!!

He’ll also cover the skepticism other vets sometimes feel when encountering his thinking, how he and Dr. Susan Ettinger started their writing partnership, and how to encourage an open-minded approach in yourself and your dog cancer care team.

Glenda and Max

Glenda watched as I examined Max, her nine-year-old Golden Retriever. [Note: Not their real names. Throughout this book, I will use real stories from my veterinary practice to illustrate important concepts and ideas. To protect the privacy of my clients and ensure clarity, I combine circumstances and client stories and change names and identifying factors. There are a few exceptions, which I note in the text. Readers of the previous edition of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide have also submitted stories about their own dogs, and these stories are clearly marked as “True Tails.”]

The surgical stitches from his bone biopsy looked fine: no swelling, no irritation, and a nice, clean mark. He would barely have a scar. Unfortunately, a scar was the least of his problems. I scratched his rump, and his big flag of a tail wagged in response. I turned to Glenda. “How has he been doing since his bone biopsy?”

“You were right about using cream cheese to hide his pills – he took them with no complaints … but he’s still limping.” She paused. “Did you get the report?”

“Yes, the biopsy report came in this morning,” I said, rocking my head back and forth to loosen my neck. “The area of bone I showed you on the X-ray does not look good. It’s a cancer named
osteosarcoma.”

Glenda looked like she’d been slapped. Please don’t cry, I thought.

“What?”

“Osteosarcoma. Max has bone cancer.”

“So my dog is going to die of cancer?”

“Well, we have different options. It’s a little early to say how things will turn out,” I dodged. I wasn’t sure she was really ready to hear the survival statistics or contemplate the complex choices ahead of her.

“I thought you said this was an infection. You said it looked like an infection on the X-ray. I’m having a hard time believing what you’re telling me.”

“Infection was one of the possibilities we discussed. The other main possibility was cancer. Sometimes the two can look similar on an X-ray. We did the biopsy so we could be sure of the diagnosis. I’m really sorry. I wish the biopsy had come back negative.”

Glenda placed one hand on her forehead, fingers shading her eyes. Her other hand dropped to Max’s head as he leaned against her thigh. I waited, ready to offer tissues. After a moment, Glenda wiped her eyes and cleared her throat.

“What are the options?”

Here we go, I thought, it’s not going to get any easier to tell her this, so just start talking.

“The treatment options are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.”

It was hard to look directly into Glenda’s eyes, so I shuffled the papers in Max’s file as I continued.

“Surgery, in the case of bone cancer, means amputation. Yes, dogs can walk on three legs, but no, it likely will not cure cancer in the end.

This cancer has usually spread through the body by the time it is diagnosed. Without treatment, median survival is about two months, and owners usually choose to euthanize the dog because of the decline in life quality.

Chemotherapy added to the surgery extends median survival time to about ten months to a year, give or take.

Radiation can take away the pain for a few months, usually four or five.”

I was finished listing treatments, so I stopped talking.

“Is that all? That’s it?” Glenda whispered.

“Yes,” I confirmed. “Those are the options we have.”

“But, I, I mean…” Glenda stammered, “How, how did Max even get this?”

I resumed my standard cancer lecture.

“No one really knows exactly how cancer starts. It’s a multi-factorial disease, which means many things can increase the odds of its happening.”

“Is it his food?”

“Well, not really.”

“I have heard vaccines can do it. What about toxins or something? Should he be wearing sunscreen?”

There was no one way to answer Glenda’s questions, but, I didn’t know how to explain that to her.

“We don’t know the actual cause of cancer. The person who figures that out will get the Nobel Prize.” I trailed off. Helping Glenda to understand and deal with Max’s cancer diagnosis could take
hours, and the next client was waiting.

We both knew I was avoiding her questions.

Glenda sighed and asked for some time to digest the bad news. I agreed, took out Max’s sutures, dispensed more pain medication, and showed them out.

The visit had taken over half an hour. I’m late, I thought as I hurried Glenda’s paperwork to the receptionist. I’ve got to get back in the game and treat my next patient.

The rest of the day was busy. I had few breaks, and those were filled with paperwork, ordering prescriptions and running my hospital. I felt distracted. Max’s big brown eyes kept showing up in my thoughts. I saw him wagging his tail at me and comforting Glenda. Dogs can be so generous. Too bad we’re not more like them.

I didn’t know it yet, but Max’s generosity was about to inspire a change in my career.

It’s not unusual to feel exhausted at the end of a day filled with broken bones, infections, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, but that evening found me particularly drained; Max’s predicament was still weighing on my mind.

I had recently noticed that more and more cancer cases were showing up in my practice. I repeated the same lines over and over: “Your dog has cancer … radiation, surgery, chemotherapy …
crummy statistics … no other options.” Then, short on time, as most vets are, I hurried the poor dog lovers out the door, leaving them to wipe their eyes and wonder what to do.

I’m a healer, I thought, as I walked to my car. Why couldn’t I help more? How could I leave Glenda crying and Max still sick? I want to be able to do more. I’m tired of going home at night, feeling powerless and demoralized. 

Something is very wrong. 

If I hadn’t been so physically, emotionally, and mentally tired, I may have shrugged off these thoughts. But, something was different that night. Max had gotten to me somehow. So, instead, I contemplated these thoughts, especially the last one.

Something is very wrong. 

Could that really be true? And if it were true, was there something I could do about it? Could I make what was wrong right?

I graduated from Cornell University, the top veterinary school in the country. I had been practicing fifty to sixty hours per week since 1997. I had loads of information cemented into my brain and incredible experience. And yet, I could not cure Max’s cancer. I couldn’t cure cancer in most of my patients.

Glenda’s world had turned upside down today, and I couldn’t give her what she really needed: good answers, a solid plan, and (maybe just as important), hope and comfort.

My tired mind raced on. What if there are other options? What else is there? There must be more to know, and there must be better tools. There are so many medical systems I have never used. What if I haven’t learned all there is to learn?

This may not sound like a radical train of thought to you, but for a conventional vet, it’s tantamount to heresy. I have been trained to be skeptical of any practice, herb, technique, or medicine that has not been proven to work in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Unless it met this “gold standard,” I scoffed at the treatment as unlikely to work … and trying it would be a waste of time, money, or both.

Until that night, I thought this was a scientific mindset. But now, I wondered if I was just closed-minded.

By the time I turned into my driveway, I was questioning everything. Did Max’s diet actually contribute to his cancer? What about vaccines? Do toxins in our environment affect dogs? My first-rate veterinary education had never addressed many of these angles.

My conscience nagged me. What did I really know? It had been a few years since I left school. I had had little time to keep up with the latest research.

When did I last read original cancer literature? Are chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery really all that veterinary medicine can offer Max? Is he getting short-changed? What else can I do besides what I have been trained to do? There must be more options!

Since that night in the early part of this century, I have been searching for the answers to these and many more questions. I rediscovered a passion for research, and have been tireless in my search for answers about the causes of dog cancer and, of course, the best treatments. As it turns out, there are more options, and there is more we can do.

Your Dog Cancer Survival Guide

“Cancer” is the last word dog lovers want to hear from their veterinarian. Many feel their dogs are part of the family, and those two syllables can release a torrent of fear, confusion, anger, guilt, and grief, just as if a human family member were sick. I’ve seen clients “numb out” in front of me, burst into disbelieving, hysterical laughter or violent rages, and even threaten suicide.

I can understand where these extreme responses come from, because I am a lifelong dog lover, too. At first, this diagnosis can seem as urgent, hopeless, and final as a tsunami towering on the horizon.

Dog cancer is an emergency, and if it is the tsunami you are facing, think of this book as your survival guide. When tsunami warnings sound in my home state of Hawaii, authorities remind us to pack food and water, gather our loved ones, and quickly but calmly move to higher ground.

In that spirit, this book is written to help you calm down, think clearly, and choose wisely from among the tools that have been credibly shown to help canine cancer.

Full Spectrum Cancer Care

Every cancer case is as unique as the dog herself, but it’s also true that cancer cases are similar to each other. Cancers can be similar in how they begin, develop, spread, and affect surrounding tissues. On the other side of the equation, the body always mobilizes certain systems to try to fight off cancer.

By taking a bird’s eye view of dog cancer and accounting for these common factors, I’ve developed a standard plan that can be used to target any dog cancer diagnosis, no matter what type it may be. I call my approach Full Spectrum cancer care because it includes everything I’ve found that has been shown to be helpful for dogs with cancer.

Conventional western medical tools are included, but my Full Spectrum approach also includes the very best options from alternative medicine, botanical nutraceuticals, supplements, strategic immune system boosters, nutrition, emotional management strategies, and even some cutting-edge mind-body medicine techniques that deliberately modify brain chemistry.

There’s No Expiration Date

You may have heard “there’s nothing we can do,” or “the only options are chemotherapy and radiation.”

You may have heard your dog has one week or two months or six months left.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve heard. No one has a crystal ball, no matter how many letters or credentials line up after his name. These estimates – and, by the way, most of the numbers in this book – are educated guesses, based on general rules of thumb.

As you’ll learn later, not even veterinary oncologists (animal cancer specialists) all agree on those rules of thumb. Your individual dog does not have an expiration date, and there is plenty you can do to help. 

Imagine looking back at this time in your life, five years from now, and having not a single regret. You can help your dog fight cancer, and, just as important – maybe more important – you can honor your dog’s life by living each moment to the fullest, starting now.

We both have jobs here. My job is to lay out a well-researched, practical and comprehensive survival guide, including every available tool credibly shown to help fight cancer and help your dog.

Your job is to take a deep breath (you’ll learn later why breathing is so important), read, and take action on what you learn.

Even if you feel miserable right now, reading this book is an act of hope and optimism. This is good news, because, in my experience, the pragmatic dog lover who is willing to learn does the best job of dealing with and fighting dog cancer.

The Dog Cancer Vet

I’m a skeptic by nature, so if an author claims to know something about a subject, I want to know a little bit about him before I give him my trust. No matter who we may be, we all have our own experiences, perspectives, and objectives. Knowing something about the author’s background helps me to understand how he arrives at his conclusions, and whether he may have any underlying biases or a hidden agenda.

I recommend you adopt a similar attitude as you learn about your dog’s cancer. Take everything you hear and read (even in this book) with a grain of salt. As you’ll discover, cancer is not simple, and there are many competing theories, treatments and approaches. What works for one dog may not work for another.

At this time there is no one cure for systemic cancer and, therefore, no absolute right way to treat it. With all of the possibilities out there, you will need to use discernment to weigh all the factors and find the best way to treat your dog’s cancer.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m going to tell you a little more about my own story, so you can get to know me, and be alert to my particular biases and attitudes.

First things first: I am a dog lover, through and through. When clients tell me their dog is their best friend, I know exactly what they mean. If loving dogs is genetic, I inherited it from my mother, Lucy. She is the founder of the Pacific Primate Sanctuary on Maui, and yet, she still finds room in her home and heart for a pack of five Chihuahuas. My love of dogs gives me a unique understanding of how painful it is to have a dog with cancer, and that has helped me to write this book.

Second (and this is important): I am not an oncologist. I am a general practice vet who works in one of the most isolated places on Earth. Hawaii is about 3,000 miles from California, in the middle of the Pacific. There are very few veterinary specialists; I simply don’t have the option to refer advanced cases out of my practice. I deal with every type of animal illness and concern, every day.

This makes my experience broad and very wide in scope compared to many of my colleagues on the mainland. I am sometimes forced to take a broad view of illnesses and look for overall patterns to help me treat patients, and this can result in unusual methods and unconventional ideas.

Even though I’m not an oncologist, I’ve been nicknamed the “dog cancer vet” by readers and clients, because of my special interest in canine cancer, which was sparked by Max. I spend my extra time devoted to researching and writing about it here on www.DogCancerBlog.com.

I’ve studied every aspect of canine cancer treatment. I read oncology textbooks cover to cover. I pore over every paper I can find. I talk to every researcher I can get on the phone and pepper those I can’t with emails. I fly to veterinary oncology conferences and follow every lead that presents itself in my search for dog cancer answers.

Until I started this research, I identified myself as a conventional vet. I did not have much respect for “alternative” or “holistic” vets who – in my opinion – were not as scientific as I.

But over time, as I followed leads offered by cutting-edge research, I found myself going, in a sense, “down the rabbit hole.” Like Alice entering Wonderland, things no longer appeared black and white. Rules I had lived by seemed to bend. Assumptions I’d been taught were turned upside down. I found myself venturing far from conventional medicine: first into alternative medicine, and then beyond, to places, theories, and therapies I never would have guessed had anything to do with treating cancer.

I started applying what I had learned with dogs in my practice and saw results I could never have expected. Not everything worked perfectly or worked exactly as I hoped it would. But it was surprising to me how many therapies, beyond chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation, can help a dog with cancer.

In the first years of my research, I was really burning the midnight oil, while still running my full-time veterinary hospital. I was glad to be helping the dogs in my practice, of course; what bugged me was that this information was scattered all over the place.

Just like many dog lovers who get a cancer diagnosis, I had started with the internet as my first source of information, and boy, was there a lot of it out there. Some of it, I just couldn’t stomach. Online forums and blogs are filled with people sharing their own stories or recommendations – but how much of this can be trusted? When I look at them from a medical perspective (even my expanded one) many posts are definitely suspect.

Simple But Powerful Lifestyle Shifts

After sifting through personal anecdotes, hyperbole, outright product sales pitches and miscellaneous gobbledygook, what I found really shifted my entire medical perspective on animal health and disease.

Some very simple lifestyle shifts may help fight cancer, for example: changing the diet and using certain supplements.

I also learned how much emotions impact disease development in humans, and was impressed by the possibility that our dogs’ emotions could impact canine cancer development. Our own human emotions, by influencing our thought processes, could also ultimately have an impact on the outcome of canine cancer.

I was surprised to find that some cutting-edge human cancer research is not looking for a cure in isolated chemicals. Instead, these research labs are exploring natural botanicals – agents found in plants – which induce apoptosis in cancer cells.

Apoptosis is the completely normal process that causes the natural death of a cell when it has lived to the end of its life. Cancer cells can turn apoptosis off, allowing themselves to grow indefinitely, at the expense of the body. Certain botanicals, called “ apoptogens,” can turn apoptosis back on in the cancer cell, causing it to die a natural death (or, in the more colorful language of cancer researchers, “commit cell suicide”).

I wrote about all of this cutting-edge research, including information about some powerful apoptogens, in the first edition of this book. I received three main pieces of feedback about that edition:

The emotional management tools really helped dog lovers to calm down, think clearly and choose wisely.

Dogs like the diet I recommend, and it seems to help them feel better.

The apoptogens I recommend are not only effective but also difficult to procure and clumsy to combine.

This feedback reflected the challenges I was having with my clients on Maui. Finding and preparing the apoptogens I recommend was tiresome and taking too much time out of already busy lives.

The good news was: these apoptogens, when given, were actually helping dogs. Dogs with lethargy and pain were perking up, sometimes within a day of taking the supplements. Even more exciting, some dogs (not all, but a significant number) experienced a shrinking of their tumors.

My natural skepticism had not let me imagine this outcome, and it was humbling to realize how much there was still to learn. As I continued to work with these cutting-edge apoptogens, I grew happier with the results and ultimately decided to make them easier to find and administer and finally, invented a supplement. Since 2011, you can find Apocaps online at Amazon.com (both in the U.S. and in Europe) and in veterinary practices across the U.S.

Backlash

Not everyone has been happy with my work. I give some controversial advice, and I have received backlash from some of my colleagues, who believe their methods and livelihoods are being questioned. The “dog cancer vet” nickname rankles some oncologists, and I’ve even been threatened professionally. One blog comment I received – anonymous, but claiming to be from an oncologist – called me a “heretic” and warned me I was “playing with fire.”

I shared this with a sympathetic colleague, who reminded me of the story of Ignaz Semmelweis. After giving birth in his mid-1800’s Vienna hospital, mothers died of puerperal fever at a huge rate of 18%. Once his doctors were required to wash their hands after performing autopsies, the death rate dropped to just 2%. Semmelweis was an early proponent of the theory of germs (it inspired his policy change), which no one had yet proven to the satisfaction of the medical community. Despite his obvious success, he went to his grave discredited as a radical and a heretic. Years later, Louis Pasteur finally “proved” Semmelweis was correct in claiming that germs were responsible for, among other things, puerperal fever.

I take inspiration from Semmelweis, and many other thinkers and inventors, who take a wide-angle view to discover new methods. I’m hoping that by looking at dog cancer in this way, reviewing the basics of how the body works, and looking ahead to future breakthroughs, we can find new angles and maybe – dare I say it? – even hope to cure cancer, someday.

I Meet Dr. Susan Ettinger, DVM, ACVIM (Oncology)… Again

After I invented Apocaps, it was clear the first edition of my book needed updating and revising. My publisher and I started planning the second edition.

During this time, I attended a veterinary oncology conference, where I ran into a friend from vet school, Dr. Susan Ettinger. Dr. Ettinger is a hotshot veterinary oncologist at the prestigious Animal Specialty Center, in Yonkers, New York.

After catching up with each other, Dr. Ettinger realized I was the vet who blogs at www.DogCancerBlog.com and the author of this book. She narrowed her eyes and said, “Who supervised your
section on oncology?” When I told her I had, she sniffed.

“You should have an oncologist do it.”

“Why don’t you?” I asked.

Our partnership makes perfect sense. As a medical oncologist in a large specialty practice, she prescribes chemotherapy every single day of her career … but she’s open to new ideas and concepts. I’m interested in treatments beyond the conventional options … but I don’t exclude them.

Luckily for all of us (although perhaps not so much for her very patient husband and two young sons), she agreed we would make a good team, and joined me as my co-author.

Dr. Ettinger’s contribution is invaluable. While most of the book is still in my voice, her experience and formal oncology training have informed every paragraph. She has expanded and solidified the scope of the section on conventional medicine, so much so that our editor asked her to write entire chapters in her own voice. Her section contains her best recommendations from conventional medicine for twelve common dog cancers.

Dr. Ettinger and I are physically separated by an ocean and a continent and our collaboration stretches one-quarter of the way around the planet. It also spans the Full Spectrum of what’s available for canine cancer treatments. This book tells you everything we want you to know if your dog has cancer of any kind.

There is a whole team of dog lovers behind Dog Cancer Vet and DogCancerBlog.com, and we’re here to help, because we understand what it’s like to deal with dog cancer. We work for Maui Media, the book publisher which includes paperback and digital copies of the best-selling animal health book Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity. This must-read book is available everywhere books are sold in paperback, and digital formats (iPad, Kindle, Nook). It is authored by our veterinarian bloggers Dr. Demian Dressler, and Dr. Susan Ettinger, DVM, ACVIM (Oncology).

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