As I was preparing for my radio segment this morning, I noticed my pup, Eleanor, sporting her new pink Gator collar and it hit me. Why don’t we have a pet breast cancer awareness month? After all, it is the leading cancer in unspayed female dogs, it is used as a model to study human breast cancer and it occurs three times more frequently than human breast cancer.
Voila, consider it done. November will be Pet Breast Cancer Awareness Month at Gypsum Animal Hospital. Next year, we will go national, to coincide with the people-based month-long event during October.
The shame about breast cancer in pets is it is largely preventable, almost to the point of saying we can make it nonexistent. Spay your dog before she has her first heat cycle and you will not have to deal with it. If you don’t spay her or wait too long (two heat cycles) her risk goes up to 26 percent. If you are mathematically challenged, that is one in four.
If you want to argue and tell me that spaying her early will increase her chance of bone and or spleen cancer, I will tell you that is correct. But being right makes you wrong when it comes to your pup’s overall health.
Yes you knock down her risk of other cancers 1 percent but by doing so have increased her breast cancer risk by 26 percent. And breast cancer in pets is deadly, killing one out of four dogs who get it.
Spaying a ‘no-brainer’
It is the biggest no-brainer out there: spay your pet early. Veterinarians are unanimously in agreement.
Mammary cancer in dogs comes with a nifty little rule, called the 50-50-50 rule. Fifty percent of mammary tumors are benign (or not cancerous), and fifty percent are malignant (cancerous). Fifty percent of the malignant ones are cured with surgery alone.
The other fifty percent of malignant mammary tumors are considered incurable, even with aggressive combination treatment (surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy).
Simplifying that it means there is a 3 in 4 chance your pet with mammary cancer will survive; and a 1 in 4 chance she will succumb to the disease.
Early treatment is crucial
This is why any nodule, bump or lump in your pet’s breast or mammary area should be checked out immediately — as in now. If your pet does have a tumor, time is critical as masses over 1 1/2 inches in diameter, masses that are very hard or irregular or those firmly attached carry a much worse prognosis. We do not advise “watching it” when it comes to breast cancer.
Your veterinarian will run blood tests and take a chest x-ray to determine the damage done and if the cancer has spread or metastasized. A sample of the tumor and/or the lymph nodes may be submitted prior to surgery.
I don’t usually wait that long; I perform a fine needle aspirate in my office and take a look at the cells under my microscope. If I think it is cancer, I try to get that tumor out as soon as possible and send it to a pathologist. Time is critical, and I would rather err on the side of caution.
Surgery usually needed
Surgery is by far the treatment of choice. “Your best deal is cold blue steel” and “when in doubt, cut it out” is the advice of my favorite veterinary oncologist, Dr. Greg Ogilvie.
Most often a lumpectomy is performed and an adjacent lymph node is sampled for metastasis. Occasionally we will do a full mammary chain mastectomy. Research has changed in this area and we do not do full chain mastectomies as often as we once did. Biopsies are essential here; we need to know what form of cancer we are dealing with.
The only time we do not recommend surgery is with a very aggressive form of breast cancer called inflammatory mammary carcinoma; surgery will make these worse (I have first-hand experience here. A young Dr. Steve took on a case when no one else would). In these cases a biopsy is indicated. Unfortunately, this form of cancer is a death sentence; there’s nothing we do can stop it. It is the same form of breast cancer that kills women in only a few months’ time.
Chemo and radiation
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can slow the progress of malignant, metastatic mammary cancer and can provide some quality time. Currently, adriamycin, cyclophosphamide, piroxicam and methotrexate are popular chemotherapies. Survival times can be extended with these, but ultimately almost all canine patients with metastatic mammary cancer die from the disease.
Cats affected, too
Let’s not forget about our feline friends this month. They get breast cancer too. Although it is not as common as it is in dogs, it is much more aggressive with a malignancy rate around 80 percent. Do you remember the rate in dogs? Fifty percent — good job.
The consensus is cats should be spayed early too, but we are not as unanimous in our agreement here.
During Pet Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we will be doing free screenings for breast cancer. Do not take any chances with this disease and have any suspicious lumps in that area checked out.
Stephen Sheldon, DVM, a member of the Veterinary Cancer Society, practices at Gypsum Animal Hospital. He can be reached at 970-524-3647 or www.gypsumah.com.