12 tips for living with cancer in your animal companion

Learning your dog has cancer is never easy. Here are 12 tips to help him and yourself through the illness.

“I’m sorry, but she has cancer.” More and more people are hearing these words from their veterinarians these days. I heard them three years ago, when my dog Izzie was diagnosed with bladder cancer. From that moment, life became an emotional roller coaster as my whole focus shifted towards buying more time for Izzie. I had difficult decisions to make and had to adapt as circumstances changed. The following 12 tips helped me through Izzie’s illness with dignity and grace.

1. Assemble a good team of veterinarians

Ask for recommendations. Make sure the doctors respect the choices you want to make for your dog or cat. You may decide, as I did, to mix conventional and holistic treatments. Acupuncture after chemotherapy or radiation helps boost an animal’s immune system and fight nausea. You may also want to upgrade your animal’s food and perhaps add vitamins and herbs. It is essential that your veterinarians are comfortable with this and that you trust them.

2. Keep each day as normal as possible

Animals react to our moods and feelings. If we are constantly worrying and checking up on them, it will affect their well-being. Your dog or cat is going through a lot already, with frequent examinations and treatments. Sticking to a daily routine will be comforting for both of you.

3. Live in the “now”

This is admittedly a hard one to follow. You’re not only worried about your animal, but also the effect, outcome and cost of treatment. You may find yourself constantly watching for new symptoms and wondering, “Could I be doing more?” Try to focus on today. Look on the experience as an opportunity for you and your animal to bond more closely. Remember that each day you have together means your animal is a cancer survivor for that day. Celebrate that!

4. Find someone to talk to

Lots of people are caring for animals with cancer. Ask your veterinarian to put you in contact with them. My friend Skip faced some of the same problems with his dog Beau as I did with Izzie. Our talks helped when Izzie wouldn’t eat or take her pills, and Beau was having daily radiation treatments.

You can also participate in e-mail discussion groups. Go to Yahoo Groups and search out canine or feline cancer to find a group that best fits your needs. When you ask a question online, you’ll get a response from someone experiencing the same things you are. They will not waste time on sympathy. They’ll go to the heart of the matter, tell you what you need to know, rejoice with you when the reports are good, and cry with you when they are not. An e-mail friend, Lesley, says that knowing she’s not alone helps her keep going.

Your animal can be another source of support. Lesley’s dog, Greta, is always happy, able to tolerate medical treatments, is pain free and always focuses on the carrot (her favorite treat). Her upbeat nature helps Lesley cope with her own feelings.

5. Find an outlet for your emotions

You will have a lot of anger aimed at the cancer. Your frustration level may rise, and you’ll have trouble concentrating. A physical outlet will do wonders for your disposition and mental health. This may be the time to take up kickboxing!

It is also helpful to remove yourself from the situation for awhile each day. Work out, stop for coffee, meet friends, or go to a movie. You’ll come back refreshed and able to carry on.

6. Don’t cry in front of your animal

Your impulse may be to hug your dog or cat while pouring out your worries or sadness, but don’t do it. While your tears will relax your own tension, it will stress your animal. Cry in the shower instead, or rent a sad movie. Wear comfortable clothes, eat popcorn and chocolate, cry through the movie and you’ll feel better afterwards!

7. Adapt your routines to new limitations

Your animal’s mind is still sharp, but his body may be tired. Instead of going for a one-mile run with your dog, for example, take a leisurely walk with lots of stops to smell the roses (and the trees, park bench, gate, etc.). Stimulate your dog’s mind by walking or driving to a new location. The change will do you both good. If you have a cat, it’s still important to play with her, but stop when she wants to rest.

8. Make new memories

Take lots of pictures, or start a scrapbook. Encourage your partner or kids to share their favorite stories about the animal. This helps you celebrate his life and the time you’ve had together, and not just focus on his illness.

9. Tell your friends and relatives your animal is ill

If you don’t want sympathy, say so. Tell them what is wrong, what you are doing to fix it, and what might happen. Tell them when you feel like talking and when you want some space. You will hear some insensitive remarks, but exercise patience. Not everyone will understand your choices, especially if you are spending a lot of money on treatments.

10. Ask for a sign

Tell your veterinarian to let you know if your animal begins to suffer. You may not see it yourself. Ask what symptoms to look for. Then ask your animal to give you a clear sign if or when he is finished with treatment and medications. Trust him to let you know. Mine did.

11. Make plans for “after”

If your animal’s cancer is terminal, you’ll need to give some thought to his passing. Do you want to bury him in a pet cemetery or arrange for cremation? Although this may not be for everyone, I decided to donate Izzie’s body to research when she passed away in November of 2004. She went to the University of Missouri in Columbia. This was an extremely difficult decision and I did it only with the stipulation that the instructors, when discussing Izzie’s autopsy for classes, would also tell the story of her life – her rescue, her work as a therapy dog, and her valiant fight against the cancer. It helps to know her memory lives on with the students as well as the many people she touched as a therapy dog.

12. Forgive yourself if you don’t always follow these tips

It can easily happen. You might find yourself getting upset when your animal won’t eat, or losing your temper when someone questions spending so much money on an animal. Your good intentions of spending quality time with your companion every day may get sidetracked. Life gets in the way. Don’t feel guilty. Just do the best your can. Your dog or cat will never ask for more.

Keep in mind that not every cancer diagnosis is a death sentence. The amount of time you can buy for your companion will vary depending on your choices and the nature of the illness. Whether he’s old or young, terminal or cured, these tips will help you build a better relationship with him.