Fear of cancer diagnosis should not stop owners short of extending pet lives

By: Hannah Blick, hannah.blick@gazette.com
March 11, 2015 Updated: March 11, 2015 at 5:54 pm
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photo - Golden retriever mix Copper was 12 years old when he died of cancer in 2011. His owner Karin Cannizzo, DVM, MS, ACVIM, made sure Copper’s final months of life were pain free with chemotherapy treatments. Photo courtesy of SCVIM
Golden retriever mix Copper was 12 years old when he died of cancer in 2011. His owner Karin Cannizzo, DVM, MS, ACVIM, made sure Copper’s final months of life were pain free with chemotherapy treatments. Photo courtesy of SCVIM 

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Dr. Karin Cannizzo, DVM, MS, ACVIM, understands the fear that surrounds a cancer diagnosis first-hand, but she also understands that pursuing treatment is often one of the best decisions a family can make for its pet.

In 2010, she diagnosed her then 7-year-old Australian cattle dog Teva with lymphoma after feeling a lump under her skin. “She was so vibrant, I was shocked,” she said. Dr. Cannizzo, an internist a Southern Colorado Veterinary Medicine, 5520 N. Nevada Avenue, said she panicked, knowing immediately it was cancer. She felt like she had already lost Teva, which left her uncertain if she should try to treat the dog.

“There’s so much fear around the word ‘cancer,’ but it’s different than people realize,” Dr. Cannizzo said. “When it was suddenly my pet, I had to actively stop myself from being controlled by fear, because I understand how powerful that kind of reaction could be.”

She decided to treat Teva’s cancer, feeling it would be hypocritical to urge her clients to treat their pets while not taking the leap of faith with her own. Five years later, Teva is still alive, and it only took the first treatment for Dr. Cannizzo to realize that treating was the right choice for them both, despite the end result. “I owed it to her,” she said.

Though Teva’s treatment was successful, Dr. Cannizzo is not immune to the pain that comes with losing a pet to cancer. Over the years, she has lost three dogs and one cat to the disease, including her 12-year-old golden retriever mix Copper in 2011. She appreciates how the experiences have helped her in guiding families through a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“Animals generally do very well with cancer treatments in large part because they’re not aware of the language, they have no fear of the future,” she said. “The emotional burden of treating cats and dogs with cancer is on us.”

Cancer treatment is not just about finding a cure. Many cannot expect a cure, but they can use surgery and/or medicine to improve the quality of a pet’s life and then focus on extending it. “The remaining time you have with them is often outstanding, because your pet doesn’t worry about the future,” Dr. Cannizzo said. “Because they feel good, they are their typical, playful selves; it’s all about perspective. One more year is a long time for a pet. You can think about how much fun you’ll get to have with them during the holidays or the following summer.”

Cancer treatments vary, and each treatment schedule is tailored to the individual animal and the cancer. When it comes to older pets, age is not necessarily a hindrance to recovery. “Older dogs often do better than younger dogs when treating lymphoma,” Dr. Cannizzo said.

Though there are not many ways to prevent cancer in pets, spaying females before or after their first heat cycles can drastically decrease their risks of developing mammary cancer. If your pet does develop cancer, the type and location of the cancer guide the treatment options. “We may do surgery to remove the mass; shrink the mass with radiation, or prescribe medications to treat it from the inside,” Dr. Cannizzo said. “We lose pets to cancer; I don’t want to lose them to fear.”

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