What To Do When Your Pet Gets Handed a Big C Diagnosis (In Five Steps)

Medical articles
A brown dog on a bed with a pensive look on its face

Last week my cousin’s dog went in to his regular veterinarian’s office for a limp that wouldn’t go away. A few X-rays later, Hubert had been handed a scary tentative diagnosis: among other possibilities, her veterinarian had discussed bone cancer.

Alarmed, this relative did what many of us would do when the “Big C” gets an unexpected mention in our general direction: she panicked. Instead of following her veterinarian’s recommendations to send the X-rays to a radiologist and only then perform a bone biopsy at the specialist, she had Hubert transported hundreds of miles through the night so I could see him ASAP.

Which was not a terrible idea, of course. A second opinion is high on my list of things to do when cancer is on the table. But, in retrospect, she knows she could have saved herself –– and Hubert –– the stress and expense of travel if she’d just followed several simple steps.

Here’s what I usually recommend whenever cancer rears its ugly head (which happens altogether too often in companion animal medicine) –– in five simple steps:

#1 Don’t panic

After all, it might NOT be cancer. Moreover, you need all your wits about you if you’re going to make solid, rational decisions on your pet’s behalf.

#2 Get a definitive diagnosis

Though some cancers are pretty obvious-looking, they should all be diagnosed definitively by looking at the cells (fine needle aspirate with cytology) and/or a sample of the tissue itself (biopsy with histopathology).

#3 Get a pathologist and/or radiologist’s opinion

Make sure the cell samples and/or tissues are being sent out to a laboratory for a board-certified pathologist to confirm the diagnosis. So, too, should you consider getting a board-certified radiologist’s look-see for any X-rays and/or ultrasound images in which a suspicious lesion is noted (as in my Hubert’s case).

#4 Do some research

Armed with all this information, it’s never a bad idea to do some digging yourself. Be rational, though. Make sure you’re smart about how you go about sourcing information online. Go for well-vetted sources like veterinary schools and websites like this one where veterinarians are doing the medical writing. And don’t forget: If “miracle” cures seem too-good-to-be-true… it’s because they usually are.

#5 See an oncologist

It’s always a good idea to see a board-certified oncologist –– especially if you’re willing to pay for the best quality care, but also simply to feel comfortable that you’re being made aware of the full spectrum of state-of-the-art options for the specific cancer that afflicts your pet.

Finally --- curious about what happened to Hubert?

Great news! Turns out the radiologist agreed that the lesion didn’t look like a bone tumor. It’s a simple, garden-variety cruciate ligament tear. Sure, he’ll need some expensive surgery, but it offers a great prognosis!