Oncology FAQ

ONCOLOGY - Frequently Asked Questions:

What is cancer?

Cancer forms when a normal cell in the body loses the checks and balances that tell the cell when to divide. Cancerous cells divide faster and survive longer than normal cells, thus causing a tumor to form. Cancer cells then can detach from the main tumor, travel to another part of the body, and start to grow there, forming additional tumors. This process of cancer spread is called “metastasis.”

Can you detect cancer in the blood?

Generally the answer is no, however, with some forms of cancer (leukemias and lymphomas) routine or special tests may be able to detect cancer with a blood test.

What is median survival time?
Your oncologist may give you a prognosis for your pet called a median survival time. A median survival time is the time point (for example 1 year) at which half of the patients have passed away, and half are still living. These times are based on groups of dogs with similar diagnoses and can be used to predict your pet’s likelihood of survival, however it is impossible to give a specific prognosis for an individual animal.

Will my pet lose hair?
Generally hair loss is not a side effect for most dogs on chemotherapy. Some breeds of dogs with continuously growing hair (e.g. Poodles, Bichon Frises, Maltese, Old English Sheepdogs, Shih Tzus, Lhasa Apsos, for example), however, may lose a significant portion of their hair. After chemotherapy it does regrow, although sometimes a slightly different color. Some dogs with “feathers” (e.g. Golden Retrievers) or “beards” (Schnauzers, Scotties, Westies) will lose their feathers/beards.

Will my family and other pets be at risk from chemotherapy exposure?
Generally the risk to other household members is low, however it is a valid concern. While your pet is receiving chemotherapy there are some simple precautions you can take to minimize your exposure to these products. When administering chemotherapy at home, always wear gloves when handling the medication. Chemotherapy capsules and tablets should never be broken or crushed. Chemotherapy should be kept away from young children and pregnant/nursing women or immunosuppressed individuals should avoid handling the chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is eliminated from the body primarily through the urine and feces, mostly during the first few days after administration, but also up to a few weeks later in small amounts. If your pet has an accident in the house, wear gloves when cleaning it up. If your pet vomits within a few hours of receiving chemotherapy, the vomit should be treated as contaminated (wear gloves to clean up). Gloves should be worn when cleaning the litter box. Other cats may still share the same litterbox. When your pet eliminates outside, it should not be in an area where children play. The amount of chemotherapy in the saliva is unknown, so please discourage your dog from licking you, especially facial licking. You can still pet and hug your pet. If you are pregnant/nursing , immunosuppressed, or have small children, you may also wish to speak with your physician about the risks to you and your family.

What does remission mean?
When cancer enters remission it means that we can no longer detect that cancer is present in the body. Unfortunately remission does not usually mean cure (permanent eradication of the cancer).

Why does my pet need to have some fur shaved?
Generally oncology patients need to have some fur shaved for one of a few common reasons: for some blood draws when it is difficult to access the vein, to ensure aseptic injection of chemotherapy into the vein, to ensure correct delivery of chemotherapy into the vein, and to allow good contact with the probe when ultrasounds are performed. We will do our best to minimize any shaving, but will shave what is necessary for the safety of the patient. Shaving is generally a cosmetic issue only and does not adversely affect your pet.

How can cancer be treated?
There are a number of different types of cancer, each of which is treated somewhat differently. Furthermore, not every patient is the same and the treatment is tailored to the individual by your oncologist. Generally there are five basic ways to attack cancer: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and biologic response modification. Your oncologist will discuss with you which of these options should be considered to treat your pet’s cancer, and which specific procedures and medications are right for your pet.

What is a veterinary oncologist?
Veterinary oncologists are veterinarians that have gone on to receive additional years of rigorous post-graduate training in the management of cancer after achieving the DVM degree. Veterinary oncologists also take a challenging board exam at the end of their training to complete their certification. Your veterinary oncologist will focus on the treatment of your pet’s cancer, and work together with your primary care veterinarian and with other specialists for the complete management of all your pets’ conditions.

What is tumor grade and tumor stage?
When cancer is diagnosed, additional tests are performed to grade and stage the cancer which gives more information to your oncologist to allow the best treatment recommendations and make a more specific prognosis. Grading is done on biopsy tissue by the pathologist and describes how abnormal the cancer cells look. Grade is often associated with the behavior of the cancer and prognosis. Staging determines how far the cancer has spread within the body. Your oncologist will recommend a number of staging tests that are appropriate for your pet based on the type of cancer. Results of staging can affect prognosis and treatment choices as well as identify lesions to be monitored.

Why does my pet need complete blood counts so often during chemotherapy?
Frequent complete blood counts (CBCs) are necessary with most chemotherapy drugs. CBCs are done the day your pet is given chemotherapy to make sure the bone marrow has recovered fully from the previous treatment and that it is safe to receive the next treatment. CBCs are sometimes also done when your pet is not due for a treatment as a way to determine if adjustments need to be made to future doses and to determine if antibiotics need to be prescribed. In conditions like leukemia, CBCs are also used to detect cancer cells in the body, but cancer cannot be detected in the blood of most animals with cancer.

How will my pet’s life be affected by the cancer therapy?
Most patients continue to participate in all the same activities they did before the diagnosis and can lead their normal lifestyle. Outsiders usually cannot tell that your pet is undergoing chemotherapy. Veterinary cancer treatment protocols are designed to improve the quantity AND quality of life. Some pets do experience side effects during chemotherapy, but these are generally mild for most patients and can be managed at home. Less than 5% of chemotherapy patients need to be hospitalized because of severe chemotherapy side effects and fatalities from complications are rare. If a particular protocol is not well tolerated by your pet, we will discuss adjusting or changing the protocol to ensure your pet’s continued well being.

**Our goal is to make the chemotherapy visits to Pieper Memorial Veterinary Center as pleasant and positive an experience as possible. We are liberal with giving treats, so please let us know if your pet has special dietary needs.