It was a terrible, terrible shock.
You noticed something not quite right with your dog – maybe she was off color, or perhaps a bump or lump suddenly appeared and was growing. You took her off to your vet. You were worried sick about what it could be.
The vet examined your dog, talked to you about the awful possibilities and suggested diagnostics – perhaps a fine needle biopsy, some imaging with ultrasound or x-rays, bloods and lab work, or maybe even a larger biopsy under a general anesthetic.
You waited for the results; anxious, on edge, emotional, stressed. Then came the call from your vet: “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but your dog has cancer.“
Then your vet’s telling you that you need to come in so that they can explain the options, and you can hear them, but you’re in shock, going through the motions by rote. You book an appointment and then collapse into a flood of tears.
You decide that you have to be strong for your dog, that you can’t feel this awful pain and shock, that you have to do everything you possibly can to help your dog.
You go to the vet with a brave face, and then the vet floods you with information – the type of cancer, grading, histology – and then there are so many options: surgery, differing chemotherapy schedules, palliative medicines; or, if you go to a more holistic vet maybe a focus more on diet, herbs, cannabis extracts and so on.
You’re confused – should you do as the regular vet says and get the surgery or use the chemo drugs? Or should you go down a more natural route?
You love your dog so, so much and you’ll do anything for her, but there are so many options and you’re running on fumes, trying not to fall in a heap, suppressing how you’re feeling, wondering how you’ll possibly afford it all…
This is an all too familiar situation that I see when I have clients with a dog diagnosed with cancer come to me for a consult (usually because they don’t want to inflict the regular veterinary assault of surgery and toxic chemotherapy drugs on their dog, or because they want to integrate alternative treatments into a regular veterinary approach).
These clients are stressed and often overwhelmed by all the information and advice from their regular vet. Sometimes they have had significant pressure from their regular vet to do what the vet thinks is best. They’re an emotional mess.
They often feel guilty that it must have been something they did, or didn’t do, in caring for their dog.
Here’s the thing: caring for yourself is the most important thing you can do to support your dog through cancer.
It is an awful shock to have a dog diagnosed with cancer. You need to be aware of that. This diagnosis will bring up grief.
There’s no way around grief. Oh yes, you can try to stuff it down and suppress it, but that only means that it’ll get stronger until it bursts through.
Please, allow yourself to connect with how you’re feeling – this is the most important thing you can do for your dog. Your dog won’t mind if you’re crying, she will simply love you.
Be aware of the stages of grieving…
There are five stages. This is a framework and it’s not necessarily a linear process. Some people may experience these feelings or stages in a different order, and some people may not experience some of the stages at all.
I think of them more as grief stations – so it’s like you’re on the grief train and it stops at these different places where you experience specific feelings for a time. You can’t get off the train, and you’re not in charge of where it stops, or for how long, either.
The grief stations are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
You may also have additional stations with other very strong feelings. Everyone is unique, and every situation is different. Hopefully this framework will be a useful tool in helping you to navigate your grief.
I’ve experienced deep grief in my life and the only way through it is one step at a time, with a lot of tender self-care. It’s painful, hard, and though it may seem like there’s no end when you’re in the middle of it, you will come out the other side in time.
Self Care – What You Need to Do
- Reach out to your support network – your friends and family. Ask them for help and support, then accept it with grace and kindness.
- Eat well – healthy home cooked whole foods are best. Lots of fresh, preferably organic veggies. Don’t sink into the trap of eating rich, fatty, sweet, salty comfort foods that help you avoid feeling the uncomfortable feelings of grief, anger, sadness, fear and so on.
- Exercise – this is so critical. You must maintain the things that support your wellbeing while you support your dog through cancer diagnosis and treatment. Yoga, tai chi, working out, and any aerobic exercise are all good. Do something every day.
- If you’re confused about treatment options, seek a second and maybe even a third opinion from different vets. If you don’t have a holistic vet nearby, organize a phone or Skype consultation. They will help you understand all the options so you can then make an informed choice that you’re truly comfortable with.
- If you need to, go to your doctor, and maybe have some therapy sessions with someone skilled who can help you make sense of and process how you’re feeling. Having relaxing massage or craniosacral sessions for yourself will help.
- Make a structured time for relaxation for you and your family members, every day. This is very important! You’ll be in a fight or flight, stressed state and this is bad for your health. I recommend getting the whole family together just before the earliest bedtime. Put on some gentle, quiet, soothing music. Talk about how you feel, ask everyone to do the same and update everyone on what’s happening with your dog. Make it clear that everyone’s encouraged to express their feelings. Have a box of tissues handy. Be sure to have lots of gentle, loving touch shared between you all, hugs and cuddles with the humans and your dog (not forgetting the other pets in the family, who will also be picking up on your sadness). Then you all need to lie down on some mats or rugs, flat on your bags (with a billow if you need for comfort). Set a timer for at least 10 minutes up to 30 minutes (longer is better) and then lie flat and everyone simply breathes gently, relaxing tension out of their body with every out-breath.
If you care for you, you’ll be able to be so much more present for your dog. You’ll also be able to sleep better, be healthier, making you more able to think clearly and make the best decisions for your dog. It’s the most important thing you can do for your dog, truly.
Dr. Edward Bassingthwaighte is an author and veterinarian from Australia with a holistic/integrative medicine practice. To learn more, visit his website at www.thehealingvet.com.