Jacksonville vet specializes in cancer treatment

Only 20 to 30 percent of her patients are cured, but owners find the cost, which can be in the thousands, well worth it.

Published June 25, 2006

JACKSONVILLE - It took Dax Tracy less than a week to go from cautious optimism to hopeless despair. Tracy's golden retriever and best friend, Cheeseburger, was fighting cancer - and beating it - only four days ago.

"Nothing's going to happen (to Cheeseburger) on my watch," the Navy pilot said with a soldier's resolve.

But in the end those fighting words were felled by a devastating reality. What began as a story of hope - a dog on the path to beating lymphoma - unraveled.

After months of chemotherapy and radiation therapy - and at least $13,000 in medical expenses - the 3?-year-old sandy-haired dog, which had comforted Tracy as he battled his own cancer two years ago, ran out of options.

Cancer is the No. 1 killer of animals older than 10 years old, said Tracy LaDue, the veterinary oncologist who treated Cheeseburger. Only 20 to 30 percent of her four-legged patients are cured of cancer. The doctor, who has specialized in treating cancer in animals for about a decade, opened the Jacksonville practice in 2004. It is one of only a handful of dedicated practices in the Southeast.

For LaDue and her employees at Orange Park's Southeast Veterinary Oncology, coming to work can be an emotional roller coaster.

Recently, one weeping employee was wrapped around Cheeseburger. It wasn't clear who was comforting whom.

"It is tough to deal with the death and dying every day." LaDue said. "However, we find our peace in the knowledge that our primary goal is (improving) quality of life."

Unlike general vets, who perform a variety of procedures including dental treatments and surgical work, LaDue focuses exclusively on cancer therapy. A general vet is like a family physician for animals, while LaDue would be considered a specialist.

Southeast Veterinary offers high-tech cancer treatments including cryotherapy, which involves killing cancerous cells by freezing tumors, and immunotherapy, which involves stimulating the immune system to fight cancer cells.

The six-employee practice treated nearly 220 pets last year. Before the practice opened, pet owners had to travel as far as Gainesville or Tampa for such specialized care.

"People who don't have human children now are having four-legged children," LaDue said. And they give their pets the same care and love they would give their children, she said.

The high-tech care doesn't come cheap. A typical chemotherapy treatment costs about $2,000 to $3,000 for a midsized animal, while radiation therapy can cost up to $5,000, including boarding.

Southeast Veterinary's specialized care is good for pet owners - at least those who can afford it, said Ron Hansen a Jacksonville vet.

"If you can afford to spend the $2,000 it takes to CT scan your dog, you can find a lot of stuff out," he said. "I won't say everyone can afford that, but for the people who can, it would be a very nice way to diagnose your dog."

The high prices don't seem to deter LaDue's patients. To meet surging demand, the oncologist is doubling capacity by investing nearly $3-million in a 6,000-square-foot building that is slated to open next year. The new location will have northeast Florida's only linear accelerator dedicated to treating animals. The device is used to focus radiation on a tumor and kill cancer cells.