Three of my own dogs have died of hemangiosarcoma. It is just a bad disease. It is rare in people but common in dogs, especially middle-aged retrievers. Hemangiosarcoma is a cancer of the cells lining blood vessels. It can affect almost any organ, but most commonly the tumor originates in either the spleen or the heart. It can grow fast and bleed profusely. And it spreads quickly. Dogs diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma usually live only a few months. Even with surgery and aggressive chemotherapy, most die within four to six months. Only ten percent will survive a year.
Dogs with hemangiosarcoma often come to the vet because of episodes of lethargy. What has happened is the tumor has bled into the abdomen. Most dogs recover from these early episodes. They reabsorb the blood, perk back up and carry on … until the next bleeding episode. These episodes quickly become more frequent and more severe; the dog either dies or, more commonly, needs to be euthanized.
With my own dogs, I’ve tried surgery, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. All three (River, Willy, and Martha) died within 6 weeks of diagnosis. I remember Annie driving River (pictured above) to a veterinarian in New York state years ago for a series of immunity stimulating injections, the benefit of which was based on nothing but anecdotal evidence. The treatment did not work for River, but I understand there are times when one has nothing else to try and you don’t want to give up, so you just decide to be less demanding of the facts.
Not long ago I diagnosed subcutaneous hemangiosarcoma in a client’s wonderful old golden retriever, Woody. I removed the tumor, and we discussed the bleak future. Woody’s owner, though, is not one to give up. He searched the Internet and came across a study run by two oncologists at the University of Pennsylvania that claimed improved survival with an extract of the mushroom Coriolus versicolor. They treated 15 dogs with the extract, and the five given the highest concentration outlived the other dogs in the trial and lived well beyond the normal survival of dogs with hemangiosarcoma. Dogs receiving the most concentrated mushroom extract lived an average of 199 days. Survival in previous studies of dogs treated with surgery alone was 89 days.
The owner asked me to order the extract, so I read the study. At his urging, we decided to try it, but I warned him that I could not promise any positive results. I felt there was no real statistical significance in the Penn report. With the low number of study dogs, one “outlier” can totally skew the results. But he felt it was worth a try.
Last month, however, I saw Woody for a recheck, and the tumor was rapidly re-growing. Woody had to be euthanized soon thereafter. We all try to do the best we can for our dogs. Sad as it was to see his life come to an end, handsome Woody had a great life.