Book Review: Heal - The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures

By Arlene Weintraub (ECW Press)
Reviewed by Bev Thompson, September 2016

After losing her sister to gastric cancer, Arlene Weintraub—science writer, investigative reporter and lifelong dog lover—embarked on a two-year personal and professional journey, delving deeply into the world of comparative oncology. During that time, she visited eight universities and interviewed scientists, medical doctors, veterinarians, researchers, professors and dog owners.

Comparative oncology is a research initiative that recruits dogs with cancer to generate new and improved treatments for humans and their canine best friends. As Weintraub notes, “Genetically speaking, our canine companions are more closely related to us than we realize.” Comparable to those who take part in human clinical trials, the dogs in these studies have few options; standard treatments are too costly and/or do not work, which ultimately leads their owners to seek out experimental drug trials. Also like humans, the lucky ones have years added to their lives, while others do not fare as well.

Weintraub begins her research with 206 dogs who participated in a 2001 medical trial in search of an approved product to treat cancer in canines. As a result of these trials, Palladia, a groundbreaking first-ever drug, was accepted by the FDA for use in the treatment of canine mast cell tumors. Based upon these successful studies, the drug Sutent was later developed to shrink a broad spectrum of mast cell tumors in humans, with the potential for long-term survival. In subsequent chapters, Weintraub describes other success stories. The efficacy of the trials, the cutting-edge treatments and the people involved are well documented.

Her interviews are up close and personal. We come to understand the struggle involved in getting a drug tested and approved, as well as the personal agony of people who are facing the loss of their much-loved companion animals. Behind the data is a bigger question: how far will we, as pet owners, go to have more time with our dogs and cats? And at what cost emotionally?

At every turn, Weintraub shows us the correlation between human and animal healing, and weaves in the story of her own healing from the loss of her sister. The dogs she encounters during her research become her comfort, restoring her faith in science as they pave the way to unlocking cancer’s mysteries and, ultimately, making it a less frightening diagnosis.

Image courtesy of the publisher

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 86: Summer 2016

Bev Thompson writes for working- and service-dog online publications and rescue organizations.