Brett Cordes had been a practicing veterinarian for nearly a decade when he was diagnosed at age 35 with thyroid cancer.
One of the first questions his doctor asked him after he gave him the diagnosis was whether he handled chemotherapy agents.
"He said they see a link between chemo and thyroid cancers," Cordes said, who today is healthy four years after his diagnosis and treatment.
"It changed my life. I quit my practice and made it my passion to improve oncology safety for vets."
Animal oncology has exploded within the last decade as some of the most common chemotherapeutic drugs became available as generics. Instead of paying $1,200 a vial, it is $12 to $15 a vial, he said. "That opened the floodgates."
Charlie Powell, spokesman for the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University said the number of vets who handle chemo is low, and those who do receive specialized training and take precautions similar to those required for human medicine.
"It's very safe to say the vast majority of vets in practice will never give a chemo dose, and will refer to cancer specialists," he said. "It's highly unlikely they will try to tackle themselves."
Cordes said he sees that changing. He estimated about 4,000 general practices in the United States administer a few doses a month, often with no special precautions in place.
With his medium-sized mixed-animal practice in Scottsdale, AR, Cordes would have put himself in that category.
"I used to dump the drugs down the sink, and they would stain the sink red for four days," he said. "And I wasn't the only one doing it."
He didn't use specialized protective gear, or take other measures to keep himself, or his workplace from becoming contaminated.
Now he advises others on how to stay safe. He recently co-authored a paper for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and he also helps market a specialized closed system device that contains spray when vials are punctured.
NIOSH estimates 500,000 veterinary healthcare workers are potentially exposed to hazardous drugs, many of them young women of reproductive age. Exposed workers can include technicians and kennel workers, cleaning and maintenance workers as well as office staff, Cordes said.
The potential risk extends to pet-owners, too, he said, because of the length of time the drugs persist in the environment. If someone brings their dog in for treatment, and the dog is later throwing up at home, the people in the house potentially are being exposed.
"Education is a huge issue,' he said. "A lot of people still don't believe it's a problem."