Fate can work in mysterious ways.
A couple of months ago I was invited to participate in a symposium conducted by the National Cancer Policy Board at the Institute of Medicine in Washington DC. The topic was cancer in dogs, and how we might find ways to benefit dogs, their owners and science to better inform the treatment of cancer in humans through what is called “comparative oncology”. It was an unusual topic in my experience and that of my colleagues, so I eagerly anticipated learning about something I hadn’t given much consideration to in the past.
Little did I know at the time how personal this journey was going to be for me and my family.
Shortly after I accepted the invitation, we received sad news: our Golden Retriever Lily-who has been a member of our family for 11 years-developed swelling in her face. Our vet saw her the next day and told us she had lymphoma. The outlook without treatment wasn’t good, and with treatment wasn’t much better.
Tears flowed in our home that evening.
A week later we found a mass on Lily’s back leg. Another trip to the vet, another needle biopsy, and another cancer, this time a sarcoma. The prognosis was even worse. Lily likely had weeks to live.
Lily fortunately didn’t suffer, and died peacefully last week. Our local vet and my newly acquainted veterinary oncologists from Purdue (who were part of the conference faculty) became our trusted guides through a journey about which we knew precious little.
And now I found myself offering a presentation as the last speaker at the symposium, discussing our journey and what I have learned from the conference. Getting past the tears of our loss wasn’t easy. [more]
It turns out over half of our dogs develop cancer spontaneously, unlike other laboratory animals such as mice where the formation of cancers is essentially programmed into their genes. The genetic profiles of dogs are strikingly similar to our own. They get a variety of cancers including bladder cancer, sarcomas (including a high percentage of osteosarcomas compared to humans), melanoma, lymphoma and many others. For some breeds certain cancers are more prevalent than others, but in many instances the cancers are what we call sporadic-meaning they occur spontaneously over the lifespan of dogs the same way they occur in humans.
There are several hundred veterinary oncologists throughout the nation, some in private practice and others affiliated with veterinary schools. Some are highly specialized, including surgeons and even radiation oncologists.
It turns out there aren’t many “standard of care” treatments for our companion dogs with cancer. The result is that there is an opportunity for us to not only help our pets but learn from them as well through well designed and executed clinical trials. To meet this need, the National Cancer Institute sponsors a cooperative clinical trials group called the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium (COTC) focused on treating dogs with new cancer medicines to evaluate their effectiveness, just as we do in humans. In some instances the veterinary schools are affiliated with medical schools with the shared goal of working together to improve outcomes in both pets and people.
All of this is likely unknown to most of us, as it was for me. Having spent a day and a half listening to the lectures and comments at the meeting I came away much more informed and aware that enabling this approach to learning more about cancer treatment in dogs might help us-pets and people alike-do good for each other.
Years ago in 1972 a well-known oncologist named Joseph Burchenal wrote a paper-which I still recall– describing how a particular cancer called Burkitt lymphoma might serve as a “stalking horse” (his words) to develop effective treatments for acute lymphocytic leukemia, at that time an almost a universally fatal disease. Today we know Dr. Burchenal’s dream of helping people with ALL is a reality, and we can offer the majority of the (usually young )patients with this disease remission and cure (although we must acknowledge that the success comes with a substantial burden of long term side effects which we must address through less toxic treatments).
Today–as the experts pointed out frequently during the symposium-companion dogs may serve a similar purpose by helping us unlock more clues on how we can improve our treatments of human cancer.
As highlighted during the presentations there is much we can learn from our canine friends, such as effective drug dosing protocols based on experience in treating dogs. We can test new drugs in dogs that might provide clues for effectiveness in people, and provide information that will benefit the dogs with cancer at the same time. We can learn about the impact of the environment on the development of cancer in dogs (after all, as one expert pointed out, they live in the same places and even eat the same food as we do). We can monitor the side effects of the drugs as well, possibly predicting some of the long term impacts which will become an even greater issue as more people survive cancer living longer lives. And this is only a very partial list.
At the same time, we have much to learn about the dogs themselves. We need to do research on the genetic code for healthy dogs and cancer-stricken dogs. We need to understand why some breeds get more of certain types of cancer than others. We need to pay very close attention to the ethics of treating dogs, especially when it comes to putting them into clinical trials. We need to respect that companion pets are in fact members of a family, and how they are treated can impact a family-especially the children-for a lifetime.
There are a lot of questions yet to be answered and a lot of education and awareness-building that needs to happen.-not to mention finding the resources such as funding for the research. But this does raise the question-as noted so succinctly by one of the participants at the symposium– whether some of the answers to the treatment of cancer in humans may in fact be walking right beside us every day.
Our family is still mourning the loss of our lovely Lily. She was so much a part of our lives with a docile demeanor that made her very special and very much loved. We know we are not alone in the love of our companions. Many of you truly understand.
So the question becomes for us and for so many who have had similar experiences: what can we do to honor those precious lives which gave us so much unconditional love? Is there an opportunity to make life better for our companions and at the same time inform the human condition?
It is conceivable as comparative oncology moves forward we may soon be asking ourselves whether given the opportunity to help our pets and help our humans would we be willing to work with our veterinarians to advance the health of everyone, as envisioned by initiatives such as One Health (another interesting concept promoted by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and many others to forge coequal efforts to learn about health from wherever that opportunity may come)?
My guess is that the answer for many of us would be an unhesitating “absolutely!” Now it’s up to those who care about their companion pets to make that happen. It may just help all of us, dogs and people alike live longer, healthier years with vigor and a better quality of life.