One of the things that I have come to realize as a radiation oncologist is that palliative treatment is a large part of what we do for animals. As a veterinarian who is trained to treat cancer, our tendency is usually to want to try to cure our patients. For this we often recommend aggressive surgery, definitive radiation and/or chemotherapy to try to beat back our patient’s cancer as much as possible. But when I looked back over the majority of patients that I treat I realized that about 65% of these patients were treated with palliative radiation. By palliative radiation I mean using a small number of treatments with a large dose each time. The goals of this type of treatment are to cause as little effects on the patient as possible with as little impact on their quality of life, while trying to either shrink or slow down their tumor or in many cases just providing pain control. However, palliative radiation very rarely is enough to control the tumor for a significant period of time. Many times owners elect this course of treatment because they just want to try to keep their pet comfortable and they do not want to go through the side effects that you can get with definitive treatments. Some cannot afford to go through a definitive treatment course. Definitive surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can be unaffordable for some pet owners.
Palliative radiation can help decrease pain in dogs with bone tumors, or any tumor involving the bone. If animals cannot eat because of a tumor in the mouth palliative radiation may make it possible for them to eat for a period of time. Tumors that are ulcerated and bleeding will often dry up with palliative radiation. When owners cannot afford a definitive course of treatment, palliative radiation may help slow down progression of their pets tumor. What I have found in treating so many pets with palliative radiation is that many pet owners tell me that they are so happy that the treatment was able to keep their animal comfortable for a period of time, without a lot of side effects. What this has made me realize is that palliative treatment for animals is just as important, if not more important than trying to cure tumors because in the long run, keeping our animals comfortable for as long as we can is the most important goal.
Dr. John Farrelly