When you’re young, cancer often seems like something abstract and distant: something that happens to neighbors and strangers, but never in your own home. However, at 18 the disease hit in my home when my miniature schnauzer, Mabel, got bladder cancer. She was my first dog, the runt of the litter with the personality of a grandma from the start. Though cancer affects one in four dogs, and one in two dogs older than 10, we never thought sweet, small Mabel would join that statistic.
Running around with toys was never Mabel’s idea of a good time, preferring instead to cuddle up on the couch. In her advanced age, she still walked a few miles every morning with no signs of trouble, so her energy level wasn’t a red flag. It was her loss of bladder control that alerted us something was amiss. The same dog who had one accident during puppy potty training suddenly could not last the night without having an accident. We hoped it was minor; the vet thought it was just a bladder infection, completely treatable. A brief penicillin regimen, and she should be cured, so we kept waiting to wake up to a clean carpet and a healthy dog.
1. ANIMAL RESEARCH LED TO BREAKTHROUGHS LIKE THE DISCOVERY OF PENICILLIN
Penicillin, which is used to treat a variety of conditions in both humans and animals, was first developed by researchers working with mice. Along with other antibiotics, it is an important treatment available to alleviate bladder infections and other uncomfortable conditions in dogs and cats. Unfortunately, what we didn’t know at the time was that Mabel’s symptoms were caused by a more serious illness.
It’s going to be okay became the motto in our house. Mabel isn’t feeling well, but it’s going to be okay. It’s just a bladder infection, so it’s going to be okay.
When it was clear the bladder infection was not improving, the vet discovered that Mabel had a tumor growth on her bladder. We tried to be positive: if it had not yet spread too extensively it could be removed. It can be removed, we told ourselves- it’s going to be okay. Call it denial, but I sincerely believed that this was just a bad chapter- nowhere near the end of the book.
Mabel was never a fighter; she was mild-mannered and sheepish. As exemplified by her patience in allowing her rowdy little sister, another miniature schnauzer, to walk all over her, and by her habit of picking up mouthfuls of food and scurrying into the living room to eat (even with no competition at her bowl): she was not an alpha dog. She needed our help to fight this cancer and we believed in her. She is going to win—it’s going to be okay.
2. HUMANS AND DOGS ARE OFTEN SUSCEPTIBLE TO THE SAME CANCERS
Before performing an operation to remove the mass in her bladder, the vet ran tests to see if the cancer was contained. Unfortunately, we learned our fight against cancer was lost before it had even begun. The most common type of bladder cancer, in humans and dogs, is transitional cell carcinoma (TCC). There are two types– superficial tumors that are easily treated, and invasive tumors likely to metastasize. Mabel had the invasive form that is all too common in dogs, and it had spread throughout her body. Any treatments would do nothing but cause her more unnecessary pain.
During our last week with Mabel, her body deteriorated. We could no longer pick her up or hold her because she was in so much pain. The little control she had left over her bodily functions was gone. Euthanizing a pet is a painful decision, but watching her suffer was far more excruciating. It was clear that anytime she was awake Mabel was in pain. No one wanted to put her down, but she did not deserve to suffer just because we were too selfish to lose her.
3. DOGS ARE INVOLVED IN EXPERIMENTAL TRIALS THAT COULD HELP HUMAN CANCER PATIENTS
It was a short time frame from the day she was diagnosed to the day we were forced to make that difficult decision. If any treatment options were possible, our family would have chosen to fight her cancer. If it were caught earlier we would have tried chemotherapy or enrolled her in an experimental trial like the clinical trials at Purdue University, which have extended the lives of dogs with TCC more than a year longer than is typical in dogs who have undergone standard treatments.
Cancer is a hard battle for the over 1.6 million Americans diagnosed every year, but for millions of dogs it’s usually considered an optional fight. Increasingly, however, owners are choosing to fight for their pups with experimental treatments. By the time Mabel was diagnosed, the cancer had spread too extensively, but for those whose dogs can take part in experimental trials, their participation in these studies has immense implications beyond their own dogs—and even beyond the 6 million dogs a year that are diagnosed, and living with cancer. The information gleaned from this research can be used to better treat human patients and might, one day, unlock a cure.
4. TREATMENTS LIKE IMMUNOTHERAPY WILL BEGIN WITH ANIMAL RESEARCH AND LEAD, EVENTUALLY, TO USE IN VETERINARY MEDICINE
Cancers such as bone cancer, lymphoma, and bladder cancer spontaneously arise in dogs, due to the same genetic mutations that causes cancer in humans. Pioneering treatments, like immunotherapy, can be used to treat canine cancer, laying a foundation for human clinical trials. Comparative oncology centers conduct trials in dogs with cancer to evaluate new treatments for dogs and humans: using animal research, for the benefit of animal health, in tandem with human health.
Our greatest asset in the fight against cancer is in our homes. Research with dogs living with cancer is progressing towards more effective treatments for our animal companions and our fellow man. Trials with dogs lead to treatments that can transition from extending dogs’ lives to aiding humans in their fight against cancer: giving families, pets and humans, more time together. With continued canine cancer research, and the new breakthroughs that result, when families facing cancer hope that it’s going to be okay… it actually will be.
By: Hannah Eaton, FBR Intern