Hope and Happiness on the Oncology Service

Hope and Happiness on the Oncology Service

“Your pet has cancer” is a sentence that nobody wants to hear. With an unexpected cancer diagnosis comes feelings of sadness and fear, as well as the realization of how much time and money it will take to try and save your beloved pet. When I first told people I worked in oncology, they responded, “Oh that must be so sad.” There is a misconception that the Oncology service is solely a “euthanasia service,” yet, I quickly discovered that it was actually a place of hope and happiness for many pets and their owners.

The summer between my first and second year of vet school I was fortunate to work as a small animal technician at the Foster Hospital for Small Animals. For one week, I worked with the Internal Medicine department on renal, liver, and GI cases, as well as vaccine appointments. I expected to spend the entire summer with this team, then my boss told me I would be transferring to the Oncology department. When I accepted the summer position, I was under the impression that I’d be moving between departments on a weekly basis depending on where help was needed. Little did I know, that Monday, I would become part of a community that I would enjoy working with for two incredible years.

The majority of patients seen are older. They have stood by their owners for years as loyal companions, and because of this intimate bond, many owners are searching for options that will provide them with more time with their pet while keeping them comfortable. As veterinarians, we are lucky, in a way, to work with patients who don’t fully understand the extent of their disease. Our cancer patients do not experience mental side effects of depression and anxiety that we see in human medicine. Even if at the time of their initial diagnosis they are in fact very sick, the steps taken in the Oncology department from that point on have one goal: quality of life.

To be a veterinarian you have to like people just as much, if not more than the animals you are treating. Every veterinarian and vet student loves animals—that’s why we are drawn to the profession. Interacting with animals, for us, is easy and natural. But interacting with pet owners, especially if it involves bad news, is not so easy. While the animals continue to live in relative oblivion, cheerful despite feeling a bit lethargic or having a sore leg because of a mass, their owners deal with the pain and anxiety of knowing their pet’s lifespan might be cut short.

A lot of veterinary students are turned off by the oncology field because they don’t want to be responsible for a long string of euthanasias.  I would urge those who feel that way to reconsider how much the service does for our clients and what an honor it is to help them in their time of need, both pre- and post-treatment.

Much of my passion for the Oncology department at Foster Hospital for Small Animals stems outside of the science, from the phenomenal doctors and technicians I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Dr. Burgess, Dr. Barber, and Dr. Keyerleber are smart, talented, and dedicated clinicians who are supported by some of the best technicians I have ever encountered. The residents in the department provide so much support and encouragement to us students because they remember what it was like to be in our shoes, and want us to learn as much as we can from our rotations and find our calling. I was always so focused on attending veterinary school to become a small animal general practitioner. While that may still be where I end up, I find myself toying with the idea of pursuing an oncology residency and becoming my own version of the doctors I have learned so much from.

In addition to my hands-on clinical work as a technician, I was given the opportunity to pursue a research project under Dr. Burgess’s supervision. Whenever I think of cancer, no matter how daunting it is for a family member or friend, I have to remind myself that science is on our side. Multiple research projects connecting human and animal care are underway and have made great progress in recent years. I feel lucky to be a part of a community of brilliant minds, working towards better treatments and possible cures for those we love, whether they have two legs or four. In the veterinary oncology world, it is believed that feline large cell gastric lymphoma has a more favorable prognosis to large cell lymphoma in other locations in the GI tract. Dr. Burgess and I are working on a retrospective study, looking at previous patient cases to assess the validity of this perception. I hope that when we complete this project, we will have evidence that will not only help maleate our treatment protocols, but will give our owners an additional resource for hope.

I have always loved working with people, and I believe oncology is one of the few specialties where we work closely with pet owners on a continual basis. I have always been attracted to general practice because of the relationships made between doctor and client in the community, and I have found a similar feeling with the clients I have had the pleasure of working with. Bringing your pet to the vet every two weeks for chemotherapy, or every day for radiation therapy can be exhausting, but as the caregiver, being there to make those owners smile during those daunting days makes the job worth doing. In my time with the Oncology team I celebrated many birthdays and holidays for patients whose owners never thought they would make it so far. What a wonderful feeling it is to know you have made a difference, not only in the life of their pet, but in the owner’s life as well.

Saying goodbye to a pet is difficult, but it can be made easier when we know we have done everything we could, and at the very least provided them with some pain relief and final moments with their owners. I hope that someday cancer treatment will be obsolete. Until that time, wherever my veterinary career takes me, I will do everything in my power to assist my clients and their pets with whatever comes their way.