What You Can Do When Your Beloved Pet Gets Cancer

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As she scratched Zoey’s neck, Noel Dallacco felt two grape-size bumps. She Googled the problem, and her uneasiness turned to fear when the word cancer appeared. Two days later, 5-year-old Zoey was diagnosed with lymphoma. Without treatment, Zoey might live 3 months; with chemotherapy, maybe a year or more. “I didn’t even know there was chemo for dogs,” says Dallacco. “I cried my eyes out.”

She also didn’t know if she’d be able to afford Zoey’s treatment. According to Trupanion, a pet insurance provider, costs range from less than $5,000 for a mast cell tumor to $40,000+ for bone cancer. Dallacco had pet insurance, but she quickly learned that most policies offer only partial coverage.

Surprisingly, nearly half of older dogs and 30 to 50% of older cats develop cancer, says Rodney Page, director of Colorado State University’s Flint Animal Cancer Center. About 75% of these cases can be cured or controlled.

Thus arises a very difficult part of this diagnosis: deciding whether extending the animal’s life for a short time is worth the expense and side effects. Beth Overley, a veterinary oncologist in Langhorne, PA, explains that because vets hope to extend life for only 6 months to a few years, they use lower doses of chemo and radiation than humans receive. Medications can help keep GI upset under control, and pets rarely lose their fur.

In Zoey’s case, chemo drove the cancer into remission for a year, but then it returned. A third round wasn’t as effective, and Dallacco stopped fighting it. Zoey’s treatment cost $32,000, with $11,000 reimbursed by insurance, but Dallacco has no regrets.

“Some owners find it difficult to stop treatment,” says Karin Sorenmo, a professor of oncology at PennVet in Philadelphia, “but you can’t think of it as giving up. If anything, it’s the opposite. You’re doing the right thing by finally letting your pet go.”

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( Photograph by Gallery Stock )

How to afford the treatment:

Pet cancers can often be cured or controlled, but it’s not cheap.

Treat For Quality Of Life
Steroids ($20 to $40 per month) can temporarily shrink some tumors, adding 2 to 3 months of life, says Sue Ettinger, the veterinary oncologist in Yonkers, NY, who treated Zoey.

Opt For Partial Treatment
With some types of cancer, the tumor can be removed but not followed with radiation or chemo. You can also modify or forgo diagnostics such as ultrasounds, says Sorenmo.

Investigate Clinical Trials
Offered at veterinary teaching centers, these research studies explore treatments and strategies and may help cover costs. For info:vetcancertrials.org

Apply For Aid
Care Credit provides zero-interest loans for pet-health needs. The Dog and Cat Cancer Fund and the Riedel & Cody Fund offer grants.

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