Coping with Cancer in Your Pet

The word “cancer” is very powerful. It’s almost a taboo word, and can change the tone of a conversation to one of fear and dread, followed by silence. If the term is used by your veterinarian to discuss your beloved pet, it can shake you to your core. The emotional challenges of either having a pet with cancer, a loved one with cancer, or being diagnosed with cancer yourself, should be addressed by the doctors tasked with providing treatment to you, your family member, or your pet. It’s important to know what to expect so that you can be prepared, and best manage the anxiety and stress you will likely feel as you move through this process on the path to healing.

It’s okay to feel upset

Understand that you will go through many feelings, thoughts, and emotions (like fear, denial, anger, frustration, depression, or hopelessness). This is okay. 

What most people feel when they see or feel a tumor on their pet is fear. When you think about going to the veterinarian to check it out, you may be filled with a sense of dread. You may also feel a sense of hope (that maybe this will be nothing serious) and denial (that the lump isn’t a big deal and doesn’t require immediate veterinary attention.) It’s very important to get any lumps checked out as soon as possible, in case they may be malignant. 

Eventually you end up at the vet’s office. The veterinarian examines your pet and tells you the lump looks serious and is most likely cancer, but he/she needs to be sure and thus recommends a battery of blood tests, x-rays, ultrasounds, and biopsies to confirm if the tumor is malignant and determine which treatment plan would be best to follow.

When you hear the words “It’s most likely cancer,” time seems to stop, and the ground feels shaky. You cannot hear another word because you are in shock.

Your mind may take over and you may begin to worry, and think about the worst case scenarios. Your fears may alternate with guilt, and you might start to question what you could have done differently to prevent or change this diagnosis. At this stage, many people begin to (wrongly!) blame themselves.

The more you think about things, the more you worry. Your mind fills with tough-to-answer questions, like:

How long do we have for life expectancy?

How much will all of this cost?

How will I pay for all of these treatments?

Will my pet suffer?

 Take the time to process your emotions.

You may feel like you have so many decisions to make right now, but now isn’t the time to focus on finding quick answers. Instead, seek support from friends, loved ones, family and spiritual counselors to help you discover, express, and share the deeper, difficult feelings you are experiencing, such as fear, hopelessness, guilt, despair, etc.

 Reconnect with your social support system

Go home and get some emotional support. All these feelings, emotions, responsibilities, and decisions can be a heavy burden to bear alone. Call a close and dear friend or relative. Reconnect with your ailing pets. Be with them. Go for a long walk with your dog in a favorite spot like along the beach. Spend time sitting near your sick kitty in his/her favorite spot in the house.

Healing is a Process

Many people wrongly feel guilty for not doing enough, or not having enough money to do any and/or all of the treatment options recommended. Some people may experience feelings of bitterness towards other family members or the vet for not doing enough or not sharing enough of the burden of helping the ailing pet recover from the cancer. Even veterinarians experience feelings of suffering and disharmony when treating cancer patients because cancer isn’t an easy disease to treat and cure.

Practice forgiveness of yourself and others, and recognize that you are all doing the best you can. 

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