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March 29, 2016 – Treating animals with cancer is never easy, particularly if your research focuses on osteosarcoma, one of the most devastating forms of cancer in dogs. Even with aggressive treatment, most dogs die within a year of diagnosis. Dogs with this type of cancer not only face greatly shortened lives, they also must deal with the pain that accompanies this disease.

“One of the cruelest aspects of osteosarcoma is the tremendous pain associated with it,” said Dr. Timothy Fan, a Morris Animal Foundation-funded researcher at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Because we can control but not cure this cancer, pain management is critically important for patients with osteosarcoma.”

During his residency training, Dr. Fan found that treating animals with cancer were the most personally gratifying and the most interesting cases he managed. He went on to become a boarded veterinary oncologist, fueled both by a desire to help his clients and patients, and by his personal experience of losing beloved pets to cancer.

Tristan, a mixed-breed dog from Pittsburgh, Penn., was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in June 2014. He is still going strong almost 20 months later, unusual for most dogs with this disease. When Tristan was diagnosed, his owner, Gail McCensky, and her husband, after some soul searching, decided to proceed with both amputation and chemotherapy for Tristan followed by extensive rehabilitation. Gail is a human anesthesiologist, so she understood the medical parts of the procedure, but she also had to consider what was best for Tristan., and counsels other owners to do the same for their dog.

“Choose the course of treatment that optimizes a pain-free and high quality of life for your dog,” said Gail. “Steel yourself for difficult times and accept the fact your dog is not crying about his fate as you are. Love them like there may be no tomorrow. Treasure and be thankful for each tomorrow that comes along, and know they are happy loving the life they share with you.”

When dogs are diagnosed with osteosarcoma, the primary tumor is usually treated with a combination of amputation and chemotherapy. But bone tumors spread quickly, in addition to being painful, and by the time they are discovered the tumors have usually spread. Tristan, so far, has beaten the odds and is doing well. Gail and Tristan are taking it one day at a time, and enjoying every day together.

Undaunted by the challenges facing him, Dr. Fan devotes his energies toward finding better pain management strategies for osteosarcoma. In addition, Dr. Fan also is searching for novel treatments to treat the metastases that are almost always the cause of death in these patients.

“I think we’ve made great progress in treating osteosarcoma induced pain,” Dr. Fan said. “I am excited by recent developments in immunotherapy for cancer, and I think this is an area we can use to treat osteosarcoma.”