Thinking about Macey’s battle with cancer (see yesterday’s post) reminded me that a lot of people have some real misconceptions about chemotherapy. The commonly held belief is that the treatment is worse than the disease. I often encounter pet-owners with the preconceived idea that chemotherapy makes you really sick, rarely works, and just generally makes you miserable until you die. This is a long way from the truth, fortunately.
Chances are that you know someone who has undergone chemotherapy for cancer and who suffered extremely unpleasant side-effects, such as hair loss, vomiting, fatigue, and so forth. This is certainly a problem. However, the situation in pets is somewhat different than in people.
The very cool thing in treating pets with cancer is that we rarely use high-dose chemotherapy. High doses are routine in treating people with cancer because we are trying to kill all the cancer cells and add twenty years to the person’s life. In treating pets, it has been well documented that the patient’s results will be just as good with low doses of drug. For instance, a dog with lymphoma is just as likely to go into remission (appear cancer free), and stay that way just as long when treated with low doses as with high doses. At the low doses, the unpleasant side-effects are much less likely to occur.
The poster boy for low-dose chemo is Checkers. Checkers is a Cocker Spaniel who developed lymphoma when he was ten years old. His lymph nodes were hugely swollen, he was painful and very sick. The College of Veterinary Medicine helped us to do his initial evaluation and the planning of his treatment program. We gave him chemotherapy treatments over the course of one year. After his first treatment, his tumors shrank noticeably. He never felt bad for a day once his lymph nodes returned to a normal size. We have monitored his health and he has also made several trips back to the University of Missouri for follow-up evaluations. He has remained free of cancer for six more years. At seventeen, he does have some other health problems now, but no cancer.
The point of the story is that Checkers is the record-holder for lymphoma survival, being years ahead of whomever is in second place. He took the low-dose chemotherapy, and it never made him feel bad.
Certainly we don’t get such great results with every cancer patient. Some do not respond to treatment at all. The good thing is that the treatment probably won’t make them feel bad. The treatment is better than the disease.