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7 things I wish I knew about cancer in dogs before my dog was diagnosed

When our veterinarian said it was cancer, it felt like my world came crashing down.
Bill was diagnosed with cancer in September 2022.
Bill was diagnosed with cancer in September 2022.Kait Hanson
/ Source: TODAY

When my Labrador retriever, Bill, developed a cough last fall while my husband was battling COVID-19, I assumed I would take him to the doctor, get some cough medicine and, in a couple of weeks, we would see him racing around the yard chasing his sister, Judy.

Instead, I walked out of the vet's office with tear-stained cheeks and a referral to a veterinary oncologist indicating my 6-year-old boy had lymphoma.

My husband and I felt blindsided.

“He’s so young,” I thought. “He’s eating and drinking fine. What did we miss? How could this happen?”

I spent that night scrolling through my phone looking at every photo I had taken of Bill over the course of his life. Videos of a young puppy learning to sit and photos of our dogs running on the beach together made me sob so violently my chest hurt.

I was too afraid to go to sleep, thinking I would wake up and my best friend wouldn't be breathing beside me.

In the wake of Doge’s leukemia diagnosis — the shiba inu who rose to meme fame in the 2010s — I can’t help but reflect on what I wish I’d known in those early days of Bill’s diagnosis, particularly when it came to the perceived prognosis of cancer in dogs.

The writer with her husband, Dane, and dogs, Judy and Bill.
The writer with her husband, Dane, and dogs, Judy and Bill.Kait Hanson

Cancer is very common in dogs.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 1 in 4 dogs will develop neoplasia — the uncontrolled, abnormal growth of cells or tissues in the body — in their life, and nearly half of dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer.

“Cancer in dogs is more common than people realize,” Dr. Daniela Korec, a veterinary oncologist at VCA SouthPaws Veterinary Specialists & Emergency Center, tells TODAY.com, adding that dogs are diagnosed with cancer at roughly the same rate as humans.

Age is just a number.

Like me, many pet owners use age to reconcile a diagnosis. Korec says that dogs of any age can be affected by cancer.

“Typically less than (age) one is going to be remarkably uncommon, but I’ve seen 1-year-olds with cancer,” she says. Because of this, Korec tells TODAY.com it’s important not to dismiss symptoms in a younger dog “that could reflect cancer.”

Some breeds are predisposed to cancer.

Boxers, beagles, golden retrievers, Bernese mountain dogs and Labrador retrievers all have a higher risk associated with neoplasia, according to Dr. Jack O’Day, a veterinary oncologist in Fairfax, Virginia.

A Nationwide survey in April 2022 showed that breeds with the fewest cancer claims were Pomeranians, Chihuahuas and French bulldogs.

There is more than one way to treat cancer in dogs.

Depending on the type of cancer, treatment can include surgery, a combination of surgery and chemotherapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy alone and immunotherapy.

"Cancer in dogs is treated similarly as cancer in people, which means there's so many different treatments," Korec says, adding that veterinarians use chemotherapy differently in animals. "We use it in a way to maximize our patients' quality of life."

Adds O'Day, "Veterinary medicine is progressing similarly (to human medicine) in that we use a multimodal approach for treatment of cancers."

Cancer in dogs is not always indicative of a poor prognosis.

"Cancer is a name for hundreds of diseases," O'Day tells TODAY.com.

He says that a dog's prognosis will vary widely based on the disease the dog has been diagnosed with, as well as how far it has advanced within the body.

“Cancer is a really — in most situations — a treatable disease, and just because a patient has cancer doesn’t necessarily condemn them to any sort of prognosis," O'Day says.

Special diets will not prevent cancer.

The first question I asked myself when Bill was diagnosed was "Could I have prevented this?"

Korec tells TODAY.com that cancer in dogs is similar to people in that "there's a genetic and, maybe in some rare cases, environmental component," but special diets are not preventative.

"The truth is if there was a way to prevent the development of cancer, I think on the human side and the animal side ... we would have already found it," she says. "We don't understand everything fully — and that's really important as well — but there's no reason to believe that the diet you're feeding your dog is predisposing it to any (type of) cancer."

You are your dog's best advocate.

It's important for owners to voice concerns they may have about their dog and ask questions.

"One thing a lot of clients ask me is, 'Did I want too long?' or 'What could I have done differently?'" Korec says. "And of course, hindsight is 20/20, but if you find something on your own personal pet that you think warrants investigation, ask for diagnostics, ask for sampling. Cancer is very prevalent (and) people don't always recognize the signs."

In my situation, arming myself with knowledge about Bill's diagnosis helped me feel more comfortable to make informed decisions about his care and eased the nonstop feeling of dread.

Knowing there are options and that we are making the best choices to keep Bill with us — and in good spirits — helps.

I wish I could go back to September 2022 and tell my hysterical self that while no one wants a cancer diagnosis for their dog and it can feel overwhelming, enjoying every moment they are beside you is a good place to start.

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