cancer care: integrative approaches to oncology

Posted by Dr. Gary Richter on Jan 06 2014

In veterinary medicine, few terms elicit the visceral response that cancer does. The dreaded disease strikes unexpectedly and threatens to claim life and limb from our beloved pets.

Cancer arises from a host of underlying causes such as exposure to toxins, viruses, chronic inflammation, as well as genetic effects. Given that the solution to disease treatment lies in understanding its mechanics, cancer research has focused much of its energy on discovering specific abnormalities occurring within cancer cells.

There is disagreement among researchers regarding the malfunction occurring within cells that leads to their transformation towards cancer. The details of these conflicting theories could (and do) fill textbooks. In brief, most research and cancer drug development focuses on the theory that errors in DNA and gene replication lead to cellular malfunction and cancer. Most chemotherapy and radiation therapy is based on this foundation.

Alternatively, some researchers view cancer as a malfunction of a cell’s ability to generate energy. This theory, known as the Warburg Effect, takes a very different view towards the origins of cancer and thus proposes different treatment options. Therapy based on the Warburg Effect focuses on suppressing cancer through starving the abnormal cells of energy and exploiting their weaknesses.

How We Treat Cancer

There are two stages of cancer treatment. For those cancers that arise as a solid mass, the first step is removal of the primary tumor. Most commonly this is achieved through surgery, and many cancers can in fact be “cured” through surgical intervention.

The second stage of cancer therapy is controlling metastasis, or cells that spread through the body to distant sites. This is a key point in cancer therapy since 80% of patients who die from cancer will die from metastasis and not from their primary tumor. Controlling metastasis is the key to cancer survival for most patients with malignancies.

For those cancers that cannot be completely removed surgically or have a high potential to metastasize, chemotherapy and radiation is the standard of care in veterinary medicine. Pet owners facing decisions regarding chemotherapy, radiation, and/or cancer related surgery would be very well served by consulting with a board-certified veterinary oncologist. It should be noted that pets do not experience the severe side effects commonly seen in humans, primarily due to differences in dosing. The efficacy of these treatments varies based on the disease and how well the patient tolerates therapy.

Although surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are the standard of care for veterinary cancer patients, these are not the only options; cancer patients can also receive significant benefits from complementary and alternative care therapies.

Complementary Cancer Therapies

Nutritional and herbal therapies, acupuncture, and other holistic modalities have a very legitimate role in the treatment of cancer patients. There are more than a few natural compounds that have well documented anti-cancer effects. In fact, within the past year a study from the University of Pennsylvania showed increased survival times in dogs with cancer when they were given a mushroom extract preparation.

The goal with alternative and complementary therapies is to support the body as a whole organism. By doing this, we improve immune system function and the overall sense of well-being. In many cases, we are able to increase both quality and quantity of life with these modalities.

It is important to note that conventional cancer therapies and complementary care are not mutually exclusive. The integration of therapies is often the most beneficial for patients. Such integration requires a high level of knowledge on the part of the attending veterinarians in order to avoid potential negative interactions between therapies. Cooperation between the oncologist and the holistic practitioner is crucial for successful outcomes.

Caring for a pet with cancer is a road no one really wants to travel. Advances in care and the availability of effective complementary and alternative options provide us with therapies that can often extend quality/ quantity of life and many times even cure cancer. The keys to success are to take a methodical approach, get informed on the options, and seek out experienced and open-minded veterinarians. Like many other things in life, we must rise to the occasion.