*In memory of three GREAT golden retriever patients of my practice who all chose last week to pass beyond the Rainbow Bridge.

Excessive exuberance! That would be the only way to describe Charlie, the two-year-old yellow Labrador who I, my wife, and his frazzled owner were trying to get to hold still on my exam table. Bounce, bounce, bounce; smell, smell ,smell; pant, pant, pant; wag the tail, bang, bang, bang; bounce, bounce, bounce. The whole effort was like trying to hold back the wind.

Charlie had been limping on his left front leg for almost a week. His beloved owners, logically, had done a good job of checking his paws for thorns, etc., and felt that it might have just been a strain on one of his joints. And that’s a reasonable conclusion. Just like with ourselves, sometimes a tincture of time is all that’s needed to heal. Even though he wasn’t getting any worst, he wasn’t getting any better either. So they brought him in.

In spite of his boundless and care-free behavior (Labradors DO seem to always enjoy themselves!), I did manage to get a reasonably good examination of both his front legs. With the exception of a slight swelling to his left carpal joint (ankle), I could find nothing obviously wrong. I then spent the next five minutes giving the owner a long list of what the possible problems might be that Charlie could have: 1.) Most likely it was a soft-tissue trauma (pulled tendon, partially-torn ligament, bruised or pulled muscle, etc.) 2.) It could have been one of the long lists of “growing pain” disorders that occasionally affect large breed dogs (panosteotis, HOD, OCD.) 3.) A possible hairline fracture. 4.) One of the large-breed dog birth defects (elbow or hip dysplasia.) 5.) A joint infection.

There was a last possible problem, that, because of the dog’s young age, I didn’t worry too much about. But, in order to be thorough, I gently suggested that I do an X-ray of Charlie’s swollen ankle. My reason for being gentle about suggesting the X-ray is that my doing so frequently alerts the pet’s owner that I might be thinking about something really bad.

And that turned out to be the case with Charlie’s owner. Without me even mentioning “the C-word,” I saw his loving owner’s eyes begin to redden and her tears begin to flow. “Doctor, he doesn’t have cancer, does he?”

[We X-rayed Charlie and he was fine. Probably his limping was just some strain of his joint.]

CANCER!!! The very word strikes terror at the heart of those who hear it. Everyone who has been alive on this planet has been affected by this horrific disease. Either they’ve had it themselves, or have know someone who has had it. As a medical professional, I am very cautious on how or when I use the word. Just like in the example of young Charlie, I can give a laundry-list of common ailments that most probably are the reason for a pet’s problem, but as soon as I mention “the C-word,” everything I’ve previously said is totally forgotten.

As common as the disease is, most people have no idea of what cancer exactly is. Likewise, most people are surprised to hear that their pets (and even plants) can come down with the disease as well! I’m going to try and explain the disease, but please keep in mind that there are entire medical research libraries filled with hundreds of thousands of books on the subject, as well as professional and dedicated researchers who’ve spent their entire life studying cancer who still haven’t completely figured it out.

Keeping in mind that dictionary definitions of cancer can go on for pages, what I tell my clients is that cancer is simply just uncontrolled cellular growth. For reasons that are still unknown, a single body’s cell—or a small group of cells—begins to divide and duplicate itself uncontrollably. In the example of my three golden retriever patients that sucumbed to cancer in the past week, the first one had a bone cell in his left fore-arm that went berserk (once again, I’m using language that non-medically educated readers might relate to) and grew into a very painful bone tumor (osteosarchoma); the second golden had a group of lymph node cells start to divide out of control resulting in whole-body lymph node cancer (lymphoma); and the third, a great dog named Sonny, had a liver cell that started growing wildly, resulting in liver cancer (hepatocarcinoma). The same can be true of any other organ or part of the body: If the un-controlled growth occurs in a mammary gland, the result will be breast cancer, the spleen (hemangiosarchoma), the blood vessels (pericytomas), the brain (astrocytomas), etc., etc.

Why this outta control cellular growth begins is still not completely understood. Greater medical minds than my bumbling self still haven’t reliably figured it out for each and every type of cancer. Everything has been blamed from cosmic radiation, to the Reagan Administration; from chemical agents, to cell phones. The best answer I give my grieving clients is “that there is no answer. All we can do is enjoy our time with each other and our treasured pets the best we can.” Thanks again

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