Cancer: Now What?

Cat at Vet
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In July of last year, a young couple brought their two Greyhounds to see me at the clinic. Joel, the 11-year old dog, had begun coughing over the last few days. (Toast, Joel’s faithful companion, came along for moral support.)

The couple and I talked about how the dogs were doing, and possible causes for this mild but persistent cough. As I examined Joel, our conversation drifted to work, married life and local restaurants. The room was full of smiles and laughter. Then I put my stethoscope on Joel’s chest.

His lungs sounded terrible. I immediately feared severe lung disease.

To avoid alarming Joel’s owners, I simply said, “I don’t like the way Joel’s lungs sound. Let’s take some X-rays to make sure everything’s OK.” They agreed, and I led Joel from the room as Toast looked on warily.

When his x-rays appeared on my computer screen, my heart sank. Joel’s lungs were full of soft-tissue nodules. He had metastatic cancer.

What followed was a painful and emotional conversation that I have had far too many times. I began by displaying the x-rays so I could explain my findings to Joel’s unsuspecting owners. The first thing I said was, “I’m afraid I have some bad news to share.”

The First Question

Telling people their pets have cancer is probably the worst part of my job. Unfortunately, I have to do it with some regularity. Cancer is the most common cause of death in dogs over age two and one of the most common causes of death in cats.

Twice this week I have talked with pet owners who just learned their pets have cancer. In both cases, the first question they asked me was: “What do we do now?”

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