Veterinarian column: Your dog and the risk of lymphoma
Lymphoma is the one of the most common cancers diagnosed, accounting for up to 24 percent of cancer cases seen in dogs. Multiple types of lymphoma can strike dogs, and the behavior of the cancer is extremely variable.
Some types of lymphoma have rapid progress that can quickly become life-threatening. Other forms can be very slow in their progression.
The cancer is usually seen in middle age to older dogs with an average age of 6-9 years. Certain breeds are more commonly affected like the Golden Retrievers, Boxers, Scottish Terriers and Basset Hounds. Interestingly, some breeds like the Dachshunds and Pomeranians appear to have a lower risk.
Lymphoma is a cancer of lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are cells that are part of the immune system. They are found throughout the body. As a result, lymphoma can be found in many different locations in the body including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, bone marrow and intestinal tract. Signs of illness vary with the location of the lymphoma. They can be mild, with loss of appetite and lethargy, or more severe, with vomiting, diarrhea and weakness. Lymph node involvement is the most common form and is identified by lymph node enlargement.
The cause of lymphoma is unknown. However, exposure to certain lawn herbicides may increase the risk, while some chemicals like paint and solvents may predispose to developing lymphoma. Chromosome studies have shown that some dogs with lymphoma have had changes that result in abnormal chromosome structure.
Diagnosis of lymphoma depends on the location of the cancer. A biopsy is needed for an accurate diagnosis. When the lymph node is affected, collecting lymph node cells through a needle may be sufficient for making the diagnosis. However, in about 10 percent of dogs, the biopsy may require surgery to remove a portion or the entire lymph node.
Special staining methods can help to further define the lymphoma. Once there is a diagnosis of lymphoma, the dog should be evaluated to determine the stage of the disease. Determining the stage will identify the extent of the problem and help to define treatment options. Staging is generally done with blood tests, chest X-rays and ultrasounds of the abdomen.
Length of life from diagnosis time depends on the stage of the cancer, location and therapy chosen. With no therapy, lymphoma can be fatal in 1-3 months after diagnosis. When steroids alone are used, survival time is about 2-4 months. The currently accepted best course of conventional therapy is a combination of chemotherapy agents given over a period of 25 weeks. Seventy to 90 percent of dogs receiving this chemotherapy combination have complete or partial remission with an average survival time of 6-12 months. Less than 10 percent of lymphoma patients are cured.
Supportive care for dogs with lymphoma needs to be coordinated with the decisions about chemotherapy and includes supplements that support the adrenal glands and liver, herbs that reduce inflammation, and herbs that have anti-cancer effects.
Herbs like turmeric and boswellia have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. The coriolus mushroom has been shown to have anti-cancer effects for lymphoma cells. Dogs with lymphoma commonly have reduced levels of vitamin D. Supplementation with vitamin D3 may be beneficial for lymphoma patients.
There is concern that carbohydrates in food (i.e. grains) help to “feed” the cancer cells; therefore, these cancer patients may benefit from a high-protein diet. The protein may aid in slowing the cancer cell growth. Fish oil is also a beneficial addition to the diet.
Keep in mind that some forms of lymphoma advance so rapidly that herbs and supplements alone cannot slow or stop the cancer cells rapidly enough. In those situations, chemotherapy may be a critical part of treatment. Supportive care like that briefly touched on above may have benefits for improving remission times.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of studies outlining how the supportive therapies can extend life. It is also important to recognize the need for a coordinated therapy plan so that all the treatments and supportive care work properly together.
If you have questions about lymphoma, contact your veterinarian. For questions about herbal therapies, contact a veterinary herbalist.
Ron Carsten was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his doctor of veterinary medicine, he holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.