In Conversation with Arlene Weintraub, author of Heal

The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures.
By Bev Thompson, September 2016

Bev Thompson: How challenging was it to separate from the loss of your sister in order to write Heal? What kept you going?

Arlene Weintraub: Well, not challenging at all, but quite motivating. For example, I learned about a drug for gastric cancer that was first tried with dogs with a particular genetic mutation; it was one of the first targeted drugs for cancer. Basil the Golden Retriever had his life extended by eight years, which, for a dog, is a lifetime. This cure inspired me to continue researching.

BT: How many dogs are in dog cancer trials, as opposed to human cancer trials?

AW: It’s case-by-case in these trials. One advantage is that animal trials don’t require thousands of patients. Just a couple of hundred are needed to get a drug approved.


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BT: How can we find a reputable cancer trial?

AW: The way to find cancer trials for pets that translate to therapies that might help people is to contact vet schools. Many are leading a lot of the trials in comparative oncology. Also the Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium (COTC) is a source listed in the book.

BT: When should a companion animal owner pursue radical but potentially life-saving treatment?

AW: Standards are much stricter in veterinary than human medicine. Vets are very clear that if dogs are unhappy in the trial and the drugs have serious side effects, they will be taken out of the trial. Their duty to the pet is making them better—that’s the vow they take as veterinarians.

BT: What was your most surprising research finding?

AW: I can’t think of only one. Cancer research has advanced tremendously since the book was published. The thing I remember most was how grateful the dog owners were to enroll in these trials. Many owners were looking at nothing but euthanasia and were grateful to have extra time with their pets.

BT: I know that one of your favorite stories is “Cali’s Total Mastectomy” in chapter six. Why is this so meaningful to you?

AW: I was able to meet the dog who was cured and her owner, a breast cancer survivor. Both suffered the same disease and were cured. The University of Pennsylvania is taking dogs from shelters with mammary tumors and adopting them out to families. They are trying to learn what makes benign tumors turn metastatic by looking at tumors in various stages in the same dog. Some of their findings have recently been published.

BT: Do you think we will push beyond traditional medical protocol and let a dog’s nose nudge us closer to detecting cancer cells by scent even before symptoms show up?

AW: There is more interest in the idea of figuring out what dogs are detecting in the early stages of cancer, and then translating that into a breath-a-lizer or an electronic nose for use in an annual physical—devices that can be developed for lung, ovarian and gastrointestinal cancers. Any cancer-detection method —dogs or devices—must be close to 100 percent accurate. False negatives are a challenge for early detection.

BT: Coming full circle, did you find that you were able to heal by penning Heal?

AW: I had pretty much lost my faith in science with the death of my sister. I didn’t think anything would work. No new ideas. Then I came to the realization that there are scientists out there exploring innovative scientific leads. New ideas from [the study of] dogs can offer tremendous benefits to the search for cancer cures.

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

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