Woman sadly hugs her dog outside after learning of cancer diagnosis.

How to keep Your Spirits Up When Your Dog Has Cancer

Earlier this year I took my dog to the vet for what I thought was a routine wellness visit. She needed some of her annual vaccinations and medicines. I also wanted to check on the status of a recently diagnosed, benign lipoma on her hind leg. It had grown a bit larger, and I inquired about surgery to remove it. But I was shocked when her vet examined it and said it was a tumor! When your dog has cancer, there is not much to prepare you for this dreadful news!

The vet carefully explained to me that lipomas can sometimes act and look like mast cell tumors. So, the mass was tested, and sure enough, it appeared to contain cancer cells. Surely, this was a mistake! So, I asked for another test, a second fine needle aspirant of the tumor. This time it came back with a stronger probability of cancer.

I was devastated! How could my sweet little, happy dog have cancer? She looked fine and was as peppy as ever. But nothing seems to make sense or feel rational when you discover your dog has cancer. Yet, after a period of despair, I was able to gather my wits about me and move forward with a plan to help save my sweet little dog’s life. I also had to face the prospect of treatment that may not fully cure her, but might give her a few more months or years of living a happy life.

Initial Shock

I could barely function for a week or more, while we were waiting for the test results. I kicked myself over and over again for not asking more questions when the lipoma first presented itself. This all happened during the Covid pandemic and owners were not allowed inside the clinic. As a result we had a miscommunication about what mass we were discussing. Georgia had a small mass on her abdomen which had been tested and was benign. But the vet mentioned something about the one on her hind leg which I had not noticed yet. It was much later when I realized she had this second lump on her leg.

The thought of not having my little dog with me anymore was overwhelming. I also could not bare the the thought that she would have to be put through so much discomfort — surgery, maybe chemo, or radiation. I had just adopted Georgia and her sister Charlotte a little over two years ago, and I was not ready to let go of her yet. She was only 8 years old.

Of course, we are probably never ready to face the death of our pets at any age. Even if they have lived a full, long life, we have a hard time imaging life without them. Death often seems to be an illusive mystery which is hard to fathom. Yet, it is real and it comes knocking on our door without being invited .

“So the shoulda, coulda, woulda stuff spun around in my mind, until I simply said, ‘Stop’!

D. Euritt

Regret

I kicked myself over and over again for not getting the hanging lump on her leg tested sooner. I was also frustrated with the vet who did not tell me to get it tested. But I think there was some confusion over what had been tested and this was not her regular vet.

So, the shoulda, coulda, woulda stuff spun around in my mind, until I simply said, “Stop!” It was a mistake, a miscommunication, and it was water under the bridge. Now, we could only go forward.

It is all too easy to blame ourselves or our veterinarians for not doing more or not preventing the cancer in the first place. Some people believe that a dog’s diet is key to avoiding cancer and that commercial dog foods are bad. But there really is no good scientific evidence that diets stop or cause cancer. And premium commercial dog foods that carry the AAFCO seal of approval are perfectly balanced to meet canine nutritional needs. See my post “Is it Okay to Feed Dry Kibble to Your New Rescue Dog? for more information about dog diets.

The point is, dogs get cancer. Dogs are living longer and mixed breeds and purebred dogs alike seem to get cancer at about the same rate. Veterinarian medicine has come a long way in developing successful treatments for canine cancers. Therefore, a cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence.

Depression and Despair

I felt really flat for at least two weeks and lost interest in anything that did not have to do with my dog. All I wanted to do was to hold my dog. I wept and prayed. It was hard for me to imagine not having her in my life. I found it hard to function and get through my week working at my consulting and part-time jobs. I just wanted to curl up in a chair with my little dog on my lap.

But I had another dog, Georgia’s sister Charlotte, who needed some TLC as well. She became anxious each time I took Georgia to the vet for several hours of tests and procedures. She had no idea why we were gone so long or why Georgia was grumpy when she came home.

So, I began to shift my focus on her needs as well. Charlotte would really miss her sister if she died from cancer. This thought brought me out of my depression enough to begin thinking about the steps ahead.

But I did allow myself to cry, to feel truly sad. I lit a candle one evening and called upon healing angels to help Georgia get through this. The next morning I felt stronger and ready to move forward. I felt more prepared to do all I could to help Georgia fight this cancer.

Your Dog Does Not Know She Has Cancer

Black mixed breed dog sleeping in Mom's bed
Georgia taking a nap.

Georgia had no idea she had a tumor.

She felt fine. The cancer cells had not spread very far and surgery was still an option. I decided it was good to continue our normal routine and stay focused on the things both my dogs loved — food, walks, cuddling, and playing fetch and tug of war.

Normalizing our daily life made a huge difference in my attitude regarding both of my dogs. It was too easy to succumb to depression after the cancer diagnosis was given. Yet, it ultimately felt more important than ever to focus on spending quality time each day with my precious dogs. Regardless of whether or not I had one day or thousands of days, each moment spent with my furry friends seemed sacred and special. The prospect of death seemed to be a wake up call to the significance of what I had in the moment with my two beloved pups.

Educate Yourself and Prepare for the Road Ahead

Charlotte in her reading glasses

After I cried my eyes out one evening, I eventually gained the strength to move on. I read everything I could about the type of cancer my dog had–the good, bad, and the ugly. The articles helped to prepare me for the worst yet I hoped for the best.

Next, I did everything my vet said I should do. After the initial tests with my vet, I scheduled Georgia for a visit with an oncology surgery, gave permission for more tests, than followed up with an oncologist. They advised me of the full range of options and possibilities regarding Georgia’s prognosis.

I felt it was important to become as informed as I could be. But at the same time, I listened to what each specialist recommended. In some cases, I also tried to follow my instincts when treatment choices were offered. But I never turned away from what the professionally trained medical experts suggested. Be sure to visit my post, Is Cancer Treatment for Your Dog Worth It?

I believed that science would be our best guide. At the same time, I paid attention to how the medical doctors and staff treated my beloved dog. I wanted to make certain that they had her best interests at heart.

Take Practical Steps and Move Forward

What I discovered once I had committed myself to moving ahead and dealing with the diagnosis, there were important steps to take:

  1. Schedule all appointments and procedures as recommended by your vet
  2. Check out your pet insurance or other ways to finance the costs of medical care such as CareCredit financing
  3. Learn the medical terminology so you can converse with the specialists
  4. Find out what the treatment options are
  5. Get statistics on prognosis and projected outcomes of treatments
  6. Be realistic about what can be done and when treatment may not be beneficial
  7. Learn about tests that may be helpful to make decisions
  8. Weigh treatment protocols and how they may impact your pet’s comfort level and daily life
  9. Remain hopeful and do all you are able to help your dog recover and also have a good quality of life
  10. Don’t give up! Medical science has come a long way and much can be done in the face of cancer

Reach Out to Your Loved Ones and Friends for Support

The most important thing is to not face this alone!

Reach out to your friends and family for support. Sometimes a simple phone call to talk through some of the choices you need to make can be very clarifying and supportive. It can be exhausting to provide care for your dog, pay the medical bills, make life and death decisions, and carry on with the rest of your life.

But perhaps most important of all, pay attention to your sweet furry friend and try to discern what she needs. Does she want to continue to get up each day and eat, and drink, and play, and snuggle with you? Or, does she seem tired, despondent, and lacking in her enthusiasm for life? Even though she is tired and having some pain, she may still have that sparkle in her eyes. So, let her give you the important ques you will need to make critical decisions.

With pets and cancer, quality of life is the key. Unlike humans who have responsibilities and think about the past and the future, our furry loved ones live mostly in the present. Dogs do not understand the concept of hope or what tomorrow may be bring.

Having said that, dogs are tough and can make it through some temporary discomfort and pain. They will give their best to keep going on. So, please give them their best chance to have a long, enjoyable life by thinking through all of the options.

And, don’t forget to take care of yourself in the process! You are also very valuable and much loved by your precious dog and your family. Take breaks. Get help. And remember to get some sleep and eat well. Your dog is lucky to have you! And, you both deserve the best!

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