BROOKFIELD, Ill. — Humans are not the only species affected by cancer. In fact, it’s a disease found in nearly all multicellular organisms. In September, veterinarians in Florida diagnosed a dolphin named Lucky with cancer.
At 48 years old, the 525-pound bottlenose dolphin has already lived an extraordinary life but hasn’t lost his spark.
“He loves to be rubbed down and interact with his care team in the water,” said Rita Stacey, vice president of animal programs at the Chicago Zoological Society.
Lucky came into human care after being caught in a tuna net off the coast of Texas when he was young. He was nursed back to health and has since lived in multiple aquatic centers.
“Certainly being 48 years old, he has been to a number of different places, and he's done a number of different travels,” said Stacey.
In the 1980s, he became an ambassador for the Texas General Land Office’s Adopt-A-Beach-Program.
But last fall, the cetacean was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a common type of skin and oral cancer.
“It's right on the surface of the skin most times, and his tumors are entirely within his mouth, so on his tongue and in the back of his throat,” said Dr. Sathya Chinnadurai, a veterinarian and senior vice president of animal health and welfare at the Brookfield Zoo.
Lucky was transported from his home in Florida for treatment at the Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago.
Once there, the veterinary team conducted CT scans and ultrasound imaging to make sure the cancer had not spread to other parts of his body.
“Luckily, we were able to determine that the lesions were located entirely to the mouth, so it hadn't spread to his lymph nodes or to other organs,” said Chinnadurai.
He’s now receiving cryotherapy to treat lesions in his mouth. Care staff use a topical liquid nitrogen application to freeze and destroy the abnormal tissue.
“He gets the treatments right now every other day,” said Stacey. “We target a number of different lesions inside his mouth when we actually do a ‘cryo-session.’”
“It's very similar to treatments that someone might have at their dermatologist for a wart,” said Chinnadurai. “We're using that same treatment the cold treatment to essentially destroy the cancer cells while trying to minimize any damage to his healthy tissue.”
What’s so remarkable is that lucky voluntarily participates in his treatments. He opens his mouth for animal care staff so they can apply the cold application to the affected areas.
“We use positive reinforcement to encourage and reward that type of cooperative behavior,” said Stacey.
To monitor his condition, Lucky will have regular follow-up examinations and diagnostic imaging to screen for metastasis of his cancer.
Scientists here say much can be learned about cancer management in animal populations from what they are doing right now. They plan to publish their findings as well.
“So that Lucky's treatment and his story can certainly help other animals in need down the road,” said Stacey.
It’s something that will likely be part of the legacy of this dolphin fittingly named ‘Lucky.’