“One time, a man and his dog were both suffering from cancer. They were both being treated, and the guy was telling me how much he suffered through the treatment program, while his dog went through it with relatively easy.”
Susie Kang is the first Korean to earn a doctorate degree in veterinary medicine (DVM). After specializing in dog and cat treatment, she finished a three-year residency program and is currently working as a veterinary cancer specialist at Veterinary Cancer Group (VCG) in Los Angeles and Orange County.
There are only 340 cancer specialists among all U.S. veterinarians. Veterinary medicine breaks down into many departments such as internal medicine, general surgery, dermatology, cardiology, ophthalmology, radiology, dentistry and cancer treatment. Although vets in the cancer treatment department specialize in treating cancer, they do not act as surgeons.
“The difference between what causes cancer in human and pets is not much different,” said Kang. “It’s mainly due to stress, diet, and genetics, but the treatments vary greatly.”
Kang added: “The treatments for human and pets are different because the approach itself is different. Animals continue to focus on their daily activity, while human beings tend to focus more on their life longevity once they’re diagnosed with cancer.”
That is why, as Kang explained, the focus of treatment for pets with cancer is on alleviating pain. For human, cancer treatment often leads to chemotherapy and radiation, which are often painful to the patient.
“Animals obviously don’t know that they’re sick let alone what a cancer is,” Kang said. “That makes them relatively concern-free about their own health, so our job is simply to remove pain. I do wonder if that would be a better way to treat human with cancer.”
Even among animals, cancer treatment for dogs and cats differs greatly. Dogs with cancer usually avoid playing around as much as they used to. They also tend to eat less. Cats, however, have stronger pain tolerance which often leads to late diagnosis. That is why vets advise pet owners to schedule at least one visit to the hospital per year.
“It’s the same with human,” Kang said. “The life expectancy for animals is longer now, so there’s a higher probability that they could also sustain cancer due to age.”
This recent trend has also prompted the growing popularity of animal health insurance.
Kang added that dogs bigger in size are expected to live for seven to eight years, while the smaller dogs have a lifespan of 15 to 16 years. Cats could easily live up to 20 years.
Kang said she initially wanted to become an ordinary doctor, but explained that she altered her route to become a vet at some point. She now remembers names of all of her “patients,” although their owners’ names often escape her.
“I get a lot of pets owned by Koreans since I am fluent in Korean,” Kang said. “One of the problems among Korean pet owners is that their inability to speak fluent English often affects how they explain their pets’ conditions to the vet. So I try to act as the interpreter for them as well.”
Kang added: “Although many people live with pets, they often struggle to understand their pain. Cancer treatment for pets is completely pain-free, so it’s wise to give them treatment when the time is still right.”
Kang received her BA and MD in veterinary medicine from UC Davis before completing her residency at Cornell.
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By Byung Chang