Cancer sucks

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Dr. Rex Riggs, DVM, from Best Friends Veterinary Hospital in Powell, Ohio, talks about cancer and some of the interesting developments in the human world of cancer that might benefit our pets. 

Cancer sucks. It sucks when someone we know gets it. It sucks when our pet gets it. It just sucks. So what exactly is “cancer”?

We hear the word, but do we understand what is going on? Cancer is the proliferation of cells from any normal tissue of the body that has undergone a transformation into abnormal cells, which grow at a faster rate than the surrounding normal cells. A benign cancer will stay in one area. A malignant cancer spreads to other parts of the body, through either the bloodstream or the lymph system.

Cancer causes problems when it crowds out normal cells and disrupts the organ’s natural functions. Whether or not it causes a problem depends on where it is. A benign tumor on the skin often causes little problems if it is small enough to be removed. A small tumor in the brain may cause big problems if it puts pressure on specific parts of the brain.

Our pets get the same types of cancers people get. They get leukemia, lung cancer, liver cancer, cancer of the pancreas and of the brain, and bone cancer. Any type of cancer you can think of, our pets can get too. And we treat them the same way—with surgery, radiation, and drugs.

Chemotherapy can be a scary word. I try to explain to my clients that “chemo” is just another name for a drug and therapy; it’s just another name for treatment. So “chemotherapy” just means treatment with a drug. When we take antibiotics, it is a type of chemotherapy. So if we think in that way, chemotherapy seems less frightening.

There are differences in how we diagnose and treat our pets compared to how people are handled. First of all, for pets we do not have the blood markers that exist in people for many human cancers. For example, one such marker is CA 125, which increases in ovarian and peritoneal cancers. CA 125 levels are used to monitor the effectiveness of treatment. Unfortunately it costs a lot of money to do the research to come up with these markers in each species. The money is just not there in veterinary medicine to sponsor these studies.

The major difference between human and veterinary treatment of cancers can be summed up with one statement: We do not make animals sicker than they are with chemotherapy. In humans, we can justify causing discomfort in patients to get a cure or prolonged remission. In animals, we are looking often at a prolonged remission rather than a cure. This is because of the relatively short life span of our pets. If we can get an additional 2 years added to a 12- or 13-year-old dog’s life, we are adding a substantial percentage of that dog’s life span. I’m not saying we don’t cure many cancers in veterinary medicine—we just don’t make the patients miserable during their treatment.

I have ridden my bike 100 miles in one day in August for the last 4 years in an event called Pelotonia ( This year nearly $20,000,000 was raised on this one day. One hundred percent of the money goes directly to The Ohio State University James Cancer Hospital to fund research to find a cure, the only goal.

Through being associated with this organization, I have learned so much on just how close we are to that cure. Probably the most exciting development has been the introduction of genomic medicine. Many of our cancers have a genetic predisposition. Through genomic medicine, doctors are looking at what turns on those genes and how to prevent them from being expressed. There are tests now that will tell healthy people if they are carrying these “cancer genes” so that preventative measures can be taken.

Most exciting to me is that it allows doctors to be able to tell which treatment will work for that specific patient. This alleviates the need for patients to go through unneeded treatments and their side effects. It allows a patient to get treatment tailored to him or her.

Genomic medicine is in early days, but it seems so promising. I really believe in the near future it will change the way we look at cancer, not only in human medicine, but veterinary medicine as well.

  Dr. Rex Riggs grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio, near Akron. Dr  Riggs is co-owner of Best Friends Veterinary Hospital in  Powell, Ohio. He is also a board member of the North Central  Region of Canine Companions of Independence, of The Ohio  State College of Veterinary Medicine Alumni Society, and of t  the Small Animal Practitioner Advancement Board at The  Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine.

 Dr. Riggs lives in Lewis Center, Ohio, with his wife Nancy; their dogs, Maggie and Ossa; and their cat, Franklin. Outside of work, Dr. Riggs is an avid golfer and cyclist and enjoys travel and photography.

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