Getting a cancer diagnosis is never easy, especially when it’s for your fur baby. But knowing the basics about the diagnosis and where to find more information when you need it can help keep some of the anxiety at bay as you figure out the next steps to getting your dog back to good health.
Pet parents may be surprised to find out that their pet has cancer when they are diagnosed with lymphoma or lymphosarcoma. This type of cancer is one that affects a large part of the body and therefore doesn’t always lead to large growths like other tumor-centric cancers will. Some patients may have swelling in their lymph nodes; easy to see nodes are located on the neck, chest, armpits, groin, and behind the knees. While others may only show some signs of general unwellness like not eating or being more lethargic and sleepier than usual. A few patients may not show any signs of illness at all.
Finding out that your dog has lymphosarcoma can come as a shock to many pet parents, and rightfully so. After all, most people have no reason to know what that means for their pet until they receive the bad news themselves.
Lymphoma is a systemic cancer that affects cells in the immune system called lymphocytes. Lymphocyte cells are an important part of the body’s defense against illnesses and viruses, as they are the defenders of the body and work to send the right kind of defense to inhibit the threat. Lymphocytes' home base is in the lymph nodes, which are located all over your dog’s body, and they aren’t necessarily dedicated to a specific lymph node so it’s easy for an affected cell to spread elsewhere in the body.
This ease of spreading the cancer cells makes lymphosarcoma a systemic cancer. Unfortunately, systemic cancers require a bit more vigilance than a localized cancer would, since the latter often involves a tumor of cancerous cells that can be removed, while the former affects the entire body. Systemic cancers need to be treated with a systemic approach to be the most effective, meaning something that will impact the whole body rather than just one location, which is why chemotherapy is the most common and effective treatment option.
Lymphoma is not a curable cancer, though that doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world for your dog if they receive a diagnosis. Depending on the type, stage, and treatment chosen, many dogs who are diagnosed with lymphoma will achieve a remission and live happy healthy lives for quite some time after their treatment.
When something comes up as amiss in a blood test, your vet is going to do everything in their power to find out the best course of action for your dog. But you are going to be an integral part of the decision making process—after all, you are the pet parent.
It’s likely that if your regular vet is not also a veterinary oncologist, they will refer you to one in the area that they trust. It is entirely fine to just go with the simple choice and go to the recommended oncologist, but if you’d like to take matters more into your own hands, we’ve got a post that goes into detail on how you can find the best veterinary oncologist for your needs.
Once you’ve gotten your pet’s diagnosis, it is important to start taking action as soon as you can. Do the research, talk to your vet, and consider your options. For many cases of lymphoma, time is your biggest enemy in achieving that remission. Treatment can get a lot of dogs into a healthy neutral state, but for higher grade lymphomas and later stage cases treatment will need to begin quickly.
There are several different treatment options for canine lymphosarcoma and your veterinary oncologist will hopefully help you work through the process of choosing one, or give you some information so that you can make the most educated decision for your pet’s health. But sometimes in these stressful situations it’s hard to know what questions you need answers to and to keep track of everything that was said. It’s important that you feel confident in the choice that you make and we want to help you with that.
There are a few commonly recommended treatment options, and we have more detailed posts on them that will be linked in their sections, but we’ll go over the basics here.
Chemotherapy is the most effective treatment for canine lymphoma available at this time. Multi-agent chemotherapy protocols, specifically, are considered the most reliable way to get a dog into remission through treatment. Multi-agent chemotherapy protocols involve multiple different drugs that work together to not only limit the reproduction of cancer cells but to kill off the living ones as well.
Learn more about multiagent chemotherapy protocols.
The most common and known to be effective protocol is called CHOP which involves 4 drugs: Cyclophosphamide, Doxorubicin Hydrochloride (sometimes called Hydroxydaunomycin), Vincristine sulfate (brand name Oncovin), and Prednisone (a steroid). The CHOP protocol is considered the “Gold Standard” of canine lymphoma treatments because it has the widest range of proven successes in patients.
You can learn more about the CHOP protocol specifically here.
It should be noted that multiagent chemotherapy can be more expensive because there are so many moving pieces and different drugs that are involved, so some pet parents may look to a more affordable—though less effective—treatment to be able to meet the needs of their wallet as well as improve their pet’s quality of life.
Steroid treatments are both cheaper and easier to administer to a pet. Steroids are a regularly used treatment method for many different ailments that a dog may go through, so they are easily accessible and usually come in edible capsules that can be given to the patient at home in a tasty snack on a regular schedule.
You can learn more about how steroid only treatments work here.
Steroid only treatments are much less expensive than a multi-agent chemotherapy protocol, though they may not be equal in terms of cost effectiveness when it comes to the outcomes for your pet.
You can look at the difference in cost of chemotherapy treatment to steroid treatment here.
Though not as common as chemotherapy or steroid treatment when it comes to lymphosarcoma, radiation therapy is another option. Often, radiation therapy is used as a more localized treatment, but there is a way to perform half-body radiation therapy, where in two sessions, your dog will have radiation applied to their whole body to kill off cancer cells. This procedure has a higher level of impact on your dog’s day to day life than chemotherapy would, but it may be a better option for the length of time that it can reduce the total treatment by.
Though half body radiation can be used on its own, it is most effective (and therefore more commonly used) as a booster treatment for a chemotherapy regimen to help get your pet into remission more quickly.
You can learn more about half-body radiation therapy here.
For most patients, surgery will not be a solution. Because lymphosarcoma is a systemic cancer there is almost no chance that removing a growth or approaching it surgically will lead to a recovery on its own.
However, there are some cases where surgery may benefit the slowing of the spread of lymphoma, specifically for early cases in stages I-III. It can help to remove the lymph node where the cancer is originating if there is no sign of spread, and then continue treatment with chemotherapy, steroids, or radiation to bring the rest of the cancer cells in the body into the dormant state that is remission.
You can learn more about the pros and cons of surgery here.
Getting the most effective treatment for your dog as early as possible will lead to the best outcomes for any diagnosis and gives a much higher chance that your pet will enter into remission. During remission, the cancer cells are no longer active in the body and your dog can live a totally normal, healthy life.
There are a lot of factors that lead to getting a patient into remission, including the type of lymphoma, the stage, the kind of treatment chosen, and the efficacy of the drugs for that particular patient.
You can see a more detailed breakdown of the prognosis for different kinds of lymphoma here.
ImpriMed is a precision medicine company that uses advanced technology and a large database of canine lymphoma patient data to develop a treatment plan that will be the most effective for your dog as an individual.
Common lymphoma treatment methods involve using information from past cases and applying a trial-and-error method to treating patients. ImpriMed has taken the understanding of how a large number of patients reacted to certain treatments and applied it to an AI system that can then compare your dog’s live cancer cells to hundreds of different drug dosage and combinations to see which will bring your pet into remission the fastest, and keep them in remission for the longest.
We create a Personalized Prediction Profile to share with your vet that shows the estimated timeline for remission and a range of time that a potential relapse could come. This Profile helps your vet choose the right drug or drug combination for treating your pet the first time. No more waiting to see if the treatment will work and wasting precious time with trial-and-error.