Following is some Q+A with SFVS intern Danielle O’Brien, DVM, who is currently working with SFVS oncologists Carlos O. Rodriguez, Jr., DVM and Aarti Sabhlok, DVM. This is our second installment in the “Staff Spotlight” series. Thank you for your insights, Dr. O’Brien!
1. What do you do at SFVS, and how long have you been doing it?
I graduated from veterinary school in May and I joined SFVS in July for my one-year internship. Throughout the year I will rotate through the various specialties offered at SFVS. There are three other interns and our rotations are in one-month blocks. Next August, I will start my three-year medical oncology residency at UC Davis.
2. How did you decide to specialize in oncology? How many veterinary oncologists are there?
My own cat was diagnosed with gastrointestinal lymphoma during my first year of veterinary school. After the diagnosis, I extensively studied the disease, which subsequently initiated my interest in oncology. During my third year of veterinary school, I committed to pursuing oncology as a career because I found the subject fascinating and an area where I could contribute to further advances in helping dogs and cats with cancer.
There are approximately 40 medical oncologists in California and approximately 200 nationwide. There are also radiation oncologists, and some oncologists specialize in both radiation and medical oncology.
3. What words of advice and comfort would you pass along to pet parents who have just found out their dog or cat has cancer?
My best advice is to remember that although there are no “good” cancers, there are some cancers that are manageable and sometimes curable. The philosophy of veterinary oncology is to provide a good quality of life for companion animals. Many people have family members or friends that have undergone treatment for cancer and therefore see the side effects associated with trying to obtain a cure. However, veterinary oncology is not as aggressive about obtaining cures. For example, we use much lower doses of chemotherapy than human oncology does. Very few of our patients become ill and less than 5% of our patients require hospitalization. We do not allow our treatments to compromise our patients’ quality of life. In general, most of our patients continue living the life they love (e.g., going for walks, playing ball, eating, looking out the window).
4. What are the top three types of cancer you see in your practice?
Lymphoma is one of the most common cancers we see in both dogs and cats. In our veterinary patients, we see this type of cancer present itself in many different anatomic locations in the body. The most common form of lymphoma in dogs is the multicentric form, where all or some of the peripheral lymph nodes are enlarged. The most common form in cats is the gastrointestinal form, where the most common clinical signs are weight loss, vomiting and/or diarrhea. We also have many canine patients with mast cell tumors and many feline patients with squamous cell carcinoma.
5. Have you witnessed any “miracle” events with the animals you treat?
Definitely! We have several current patients that are miracles. When we counsel owners on mean survival times for certain cancers, we are only giving the average for the population. There can be outliers that can live well beyond the given mean survival time for a particular cancer.
6. Looking into your crystal ball, what do you see happening in veterinary oncology five to seven years from now? Any research out there that’s especially promising?
The dog has become the focus of a model for some human cancers and I believe this will continue to gain popularity. I think more research is going to focus at the molecular level in identifying molecular markers expressed by cancer cells. These molecular markers can then become a target to provide therapy and/or prognosis for certain cancers.
7. What do you enjoy doing outside of your practice?
Free time is rare, but I love spending time with my family and, of course, my two dachshunds, Joey and Claire, and my cat, Cloé. I also love my volunteer work with San Francisco Veterinary Street Outreach Services, although since starting my internship, I have not been able to volunteer as much as I’d like to.