What happens when a veterinary cancer surgeon goes from healer to cancer patient? Kristie Bradfield chats with Dr Sarah Boston, who tells all in her new book, Lucky Dog.
The moment Dr Sarah Boston felt a lump in her neck, she knew it was cancer. As a veterinary oncologist and an associate professor in surgical oncology at the University of Florida, in the US, she has had plenty of experience palpating cysts, tumours and unusual growths in her canine patients.
While dogs in her care would normally receive an ultrasound immediately, Dr Boston had to wait a week. And a week without knowing what sort of lump is growing inside you is a week too long. So what does a person with extensive experience in treating cancer do? She ultrasounds herself with her vet husband’s portable kit.
Sure, that may seem a little extreme but seeing the suspected cancer mass on the screen was Dr Boston’s first step in an excruciatingly slow journey from cancer doctor to cancer patient, all of which she chronicles in her bestselling book, Lucky Dog.
The long path to treatment
From the outset, Dr Boston’s path was littered with false starts, lengthy waiting times between crucial appointments and tests that did little to quell her fears. As her treatment progressed, she found there was a great disparity between the immediate treatment she provided for her cancer-suffering canines to her own drawn-out progress.
“It’s hard to compare a dog’s experience of cancer surgery to that of a person,” she says. “A few things make it easier on them: first, they don’t know they have cancer; and second, they have less time to think about the fact that they have cancer (if they could know that they have cancer in the first place) because they move through the process that much faster.”
As an example, Dr Boston’s histopathology reports took three weeks to come through but the wait time is significantly less in the veterinary world, with verbal confirmation of results within 24 hours.
“In my patients, we usually have vital information back within a few days. I felt panic when I first found the mass in my neck and then I felt frustrated because the system moved so slowly. When I did finally get the diagnosis, I felt a very strange sense of relief. I call this ‘mal-relief’ in the book because there is not really a good word for feeling relief after hearing bad news, so I had to make one up. I was mostly mal-relieved that my internal and external dialogues were aligned. Three months is a long time to doubt yourself.”
Dog owners are responsible for the health and quality of life of their pets and this responsibility can weigh very heavily on us. This is why many owners go to extraordinary lengths, both financially and emotionally, to seek out the best care.
One of the first things many owners of sickly dogs will do is jump online and search for possible treatments and experts. We may also think nothing of emailing veterinarians to ask for advice, but Dr Boston says this level of care is virtually nonexistent in the world of human medicine. You will not have an online chat with a specialist of your choice about your own health problems.
But there is a level of trustworthiness that results from transparency. When dealing with a sick pet, owners seek out vets who are not only empathetic to their case but who will also take the time to explain and educate.
“I can always feel the sadness overwhelming these pet owners, even in the boldest and most demanding of emails,” Dr Boston says. “While this direct contact can be a little intrusive, and my professional self knows that I should just pass the email off on someone else to book them an appointment, I don’t. I know that they are at home, looking at their beloved dog with cancer, trying to find hope. So I always cave and email people back.
“One of the dogs that I talk about in the book was blind. Despite this, she woke up her entire family when their house caught on fire. They lost everything except for their dog and, when she developed cancer, they wanted to do everything for her because they felt that they owed her so much,” Dr Boston says.
Dogs are resilient creatures and they love their families. They’ll be wagging their tails furiously even when they are in pain. Perhaps it is this unconditional love, and our staunch protection of it, that sees owners spend thousands of dollars on treatments.
If you take just one thing away from Dr Boston’s story, it should be the simple message of advocacy. It’s just as relevant for humans as it is for our pets. “It doesn’t matter if it is a dog or a cat or a person, you need to have an advocate for your health care,” she says.
“If you are a dog with a mass or lump that someone thinks is cancer, your path to diagnosis and treatment will be very different than mine, with one glaringly obvious similarity: every patient needs a good advocate,” says Dr Boston.
Cancer changes people but Dr Boston says that her experience has prompted her to look at life in a different way. “Realising how finite and precious life is definitely makes you try to enjoy life more everyday,” she says.
The lessons learned
“Living in the moment is the best lesson that I have learned from my patients,” says Dr Boston. “They do not worry about dying (at least I don’t think that they do) and they don’t even know that they have cancer. In veterinary medicine, we focus much more on quality of life than quantity. In human medicine, this is the other way around.”
Dr Boston advises strongly against being complacent when it comes to the treatment of health problems. “I had four doctors tell me that the mass in my neck was likely benign and it was also suggested that I should ‘wait and see’. I knew that the mass was going to be thyroid cancer because of my clinical experience with this disease in dogs and because of my gut feeling,” she says. “Even with this knowledge, I felt silly and crazy sometimes for pushing so hard to get the mass out and I even felt that if it did turn out to be benign, I was going to feel like an idiot. I think veterinarians are more willing to listen and to work up potential problems. Some of these problems might turn out to be nothing but, regardless of the species, it shouldn’t matter.”
Want to read Dr Sarah Boston’s hilarious — and informative — memoir about her cancer treatment and musings on the difference between animal and human care? Lucky Dog is published by Allen & Unwin and is on sale now.
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