Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Taking a bark out of cancer

Chemotherapy helping furry friends beat disease

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Marvin Loewen shares his treats with Freya at the Anderson Animal Hospital and Wellness Centre.


Marvin Loewen shares his treats with Freya at the Anderson Animal Hospital and Wellness Centre. Photo Store

As parties go, this one was a real howl.

There were party sandwiches, cake, balloons and presents for everyone who attended.

It was held in honour of three local cancer survivors -- Demi, Freya and Annabelle -- who were all diagnosed with lymph node cancer around the same time, endured 25 weeks of chemotherapy together, and came through with flying colours.

And the guests of honour got all the dog treats they could handle because it was an amazing accomplishment for three remarkable canines, a determined veterinarian and a group of owners who refused to accept the notion their pets couldn't beat cancer.

"It was a really good party," veterinarian Dr. Ron Worb said last week, taking a breather after a full day of surgery at the Anderson Animal Hospital and Wellness Centre at 60 Marion St. "To go through 25 weeks of an intense therapy and have fabulous success -- that's party-worthy!

"We wanted the staff and the owners to realize a diagnosis of cancer isn't always a death sentence for a pet."

In 30 years of practice, Worb, 54, said he's never had three dogs of the same breed -- Demi, a five-year-old German shepherd; Freya, a nine-year-old shepherd; and Annabelle, a nine-year-old shepherd cross -- and diagnosed with the same cancer -- B-cell lymphoma -- go through chemotherapy simultaneously.

"They're all in clinical remission. Their families are thrilled. It was a very rewarding experience for everyone in this hospital," the vet said, beaming.

He said too many owners have misconceptions about the value of chemotherapy to treat cancer in pets.

"Some people have this misconception and say, 'I would never put my pet through that because I love them too much,' but the reality is with the treatment protocols we have we can provide them with fabulous quality of life during treatment with few side-effects," he said.

"We consider cancer now to be like a chronic disease, like heart disease, kidney disease and arthritis, where it can be managed but not always cured."

He stressed chemotherapy is not always a viable option, depending on the age of the pet, the type of cancer, the philosophy of the owner and their financial means. "For the right pet, the right owners and the right vet, it can be a fabulous experience," Worb said.

He acknowledged the cost of chemo can be prohibitive for some owners. The 25-week treatment given to the clinic's three latest survivors can cost upwards of $5,000. Along with chemo, they received acupuncture and nutritional and holistic supplements to enhance their recovery.

"If you don't have pet insurance, to go through one of these extensive protocols, it's going to be in the thousands of dollars," he said.

Without chemotherapy, however, the three shepherds would likely have died within 45 days of being diagnosed with lymphoma. "With this treatment, we can expect they could be in clinical remission, feeling wonderful, anywhere from one to two years," Worb said. "That's one to two years of excellent quality of life, but it is going to relapse on them eventually."

He noted dogs undergoing chemo receive the same drug cocktail given to humans, though in different doses and at different intervals. Dogs do not seem to suffer the same number or intensity of side-effects.

The success rate for dogs receiving chemo is remarkable.

"There's a million kinds of cancer but with a B-cell lymphoma we have an excellent success rate, somewhere from 70 to 92.3 per cent," Worb said.

With recent improvements in animal cancer care, it's a treatment a growing number of dog owners are choosing. "Having chemo is much more common than it was years ago because of the improvements in treatments and outcomes. I've been doing chemo my entire career, but I'm doing quite a bit more of it now," Worb said.

"At my (St. Boniface) practice, we might do five to 10 cases a year of this kind of prolonged chemotherapy. Ten years ago, it might have been one or two cases... So many people have it in their minds that chemotherapy is all bad, but it's not. It can be the right thing to do for many pets."

Today, no one has to convince owner Sherri-Lyn Kowalchuk that chemotherapy was the right option for her beloved Annabelle, a nine-year-old shepherd cross and one of the three miracle dogs feted at the post-chemo celebration late last month.

"I would never have thought of doing chemotherapy for a dog at first," Sherri-Lyn, 44, confessed. "Once they got cancer, I always heard it was over, they were done. She (Annabelle) had little ups and downs, but she was really good during the chemo and she's still really good.

"She's the same as she was before chemo. She's a very silly dog and a very playful dog, lots of energy. There's a few bald spots, but that's because they had to shave her."

When Annabelle was diagnosed around March, it felt like a death sentence. "I thought that was it. I didn't think there were any options. Ten or 15 years ago they didn't treat dogs for cancer; they put them down," Sheri-Lyn said.

Despite the cost, chemotherapy was a "no-brainer," she said. "Financially, it was tough because it does cost a bit of money, but once you figure out if you can afford it, it's an easy decision. If you can afford it, do it.

"I'm very glad I did it. I couldn't imagine not having this dog around. She's my baby. I was there when she was born. We have a bit more of an emotional attachment than normal."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2013 D6

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