10 Questions With Dr. Ken Sadanaga

Dr. Ken Sadanaga gets to bring Benny, his Shih Tzu, to work every day. That’s just one of the perks of being an animal lover who runs his own high-end cancer care facility for dogs and cats. At the age of 57, Sadanaga has created the job of his dreams. He’s the Head Surgeon and Chief Medical Officer of Mid-Atlantic Veterinary Specialists in Malvern, Pa. The technology he's invested in rivals what you’d find in some of the best cancer hospitals for humans. The care is provided by his dream team of cancer doctors. And the pet owners who pay for this level of treatment? They come from all walks of life.

When you were a little boy, is this what you wanted to do, treat cancer in animals?
When I was a little boy, I think what I wanted to do was race around in cars, fix up my bike, you know, put on extra accessories. I started throwing newspapers when I was 12, knowing that in three years I wanted to be able to buy my own car. When I bought my first car,  I redid the motor, and I redid the transmission, I souped it up. I was a motor head as a high school student. I was always into stuff, you know, gadgets, building things, disassembling things and trying to figure out how they worked. So I was always intrigued by working with my hands and creating something from nothing.

What propelled you in this direction?
I’ve always been interested in pushing the envelope in whatever I do. Probably what started it, though was as a resident at the University of Pennsylvania, I was the first Bob Brodey Surgical Resident. Bob Brodey was considered the father of veterinary surgical oncology. His influence preceded my studies. He unfortunately passed away right after I started my veterinary education, but his legacy never left . So as a result, through my training, I did emphasize surgery toward cancer. And that’s something that I did over the past 25 years. What I found is in the private sector, the approach is very fragmented. And it was time to try to bring under one roof, all of the major disciplines toward approaching cancer because it’s not a unilateral approach, it’s a multi-modality approach. And when the opportunity came to expand from the Veterinary Referral Center, which is where we started, to creating a new place that’s geared toward a comprehensive approach, this was a dream.

Your parents moved from Japan and settled in California. In terms of your career, when you look back, how do you think you were influenced by your mother and father?
My mom was a seamstress and my dad was a mechanic. Maybe that’s where I had a lot of hand-on sort of things. My mom would make our shirts when we were kids. She worked in a factory and evolved into eventually working in Beverly Hills helping develop beautiful lingerie for movie stars and dignitaries. She was so proud of being able to do that. My dad was a military mechanic in the army early on and then transitioned into auto body work. His specialty was straightening frames that were twisted and bent and as a kid I would go to work with him, tool around if you will. So it was that, along with working at a fish and poultry market.

After delivering newspapers and once I had my car, I got a job at high school working at a fish and poultry market where we would filet fish and quarter chickens. I would get a chicken wing and I could just dissect out the meat in such a way that you would have a ball of meat on one end... all these sorts of things, working with knives, I often look back and say, you know, working in that market was probably the foundation of my skill sets for being a surgeon.

What do you think we can all learn from what you see in the relationships between people and their pets?
You know, our pets are a reflection of us in many ways. I’ve always grown up with pets and I wouldn’t know how to be without one. My pet is my sounding board in many ways. It’s crazy, I talk to my dog Benny. Is it truly a one-way conversation? No. I think he knows my intonations. He really knows me. He knows if I’m being challenged that day and he’ll come up to me, and it’s just so mystical this thing called human-animal bond, and it’s different for everybody.

Are you a cat or a dog person?
I was always a dog person in my youth and then as I went to college it was too difficult to have a dog. So I ended up having cats and in the beginning I really didn’t have an affinity toward cats, but, it was the best thing I did. Cats are so easy to take care of and if you’re out all day studying in the library, they’re self-sufficient in many ways. So it’s cats for 12 years and I was so excited, I said, “I’m ready for a dog!” and that happened once the kids came along. That was something I wanted them to experience, to have a dog in their life. There’s nothing quite like it, you know, as a kid, growing up with a pet. I think it adds another dimension to growing up, to be able to take care of something. And I think it gives them a sense of responsibility and companionship at the same time.

What have you come to know or understand about people who bring in their pets for this level of care?
Pet cancers are typically a mid- to older-age disease. So owners who experience cancer in their own pets, by the time this happens, there's a very good chance that pet has lived with the owner for many years. So emotionally,  a pet owner has many things to think about – what they would do for their pet by virtue of what that pet means to them. I mean, this pet may have been there for this person, this owner, during a very difficult time of their life, you know, whether it’s through a divorce or the loss of a loved one, these pets tend to be there, unconditionally for them. That’s the nature of the relationship. 

Is there a typical type of client?
Oh my goodness. We’ll have celebrities come in, and just people from every walk of life and there is no boundary to their commitment. We see all kinds of pet owners – blue-collar workers to executives and everything in between. No, they’re not typical. The only common denominator is that they really love their pet and they want to do something that’s going to help them.

You have some amazing technology -- an MRI machine, a CT Scanner and diagnostic tools that rival hospitals for humans -- and your own dream team of doctors. What excites you most about the future of where cancer treatment for animals is headed?
You know, it’s different, I think, for each specialist. I have a particular vision for surgery, but all of our specialists, our radiation oncologist, our medical oncologist, for instance, are very active on the research and learning side. We all bring back what we learn from meetings and conferences and disseminatel the knowledge not just among our staff, but to other veterinarians so they can help us catch cancers earlier. The exciting thing too is the collaboration. I feel that within the speciality itself, in our country and even internationally, it is a small, very collaborative group and it’s this energy that I like to bring back into our facilities so that we can better treat and hopefully, eventually cure.

A generation ago, people didn’t seek out this level of care for their pets. If your pet got really sick, your choice in the matter was most likely to accept the fact that your pet was going to die. We didn't have the options for care that we have today. What changed that allowed you to be able to open up a facility like this?
I think people and their relationship with pets has changed. When I grew up, a family pet was not in the house. It was in the backyard, and we’re talking, you know in the 60s. As that pet went from the yard into the living room or the bedroom, things changed. Our lives changed. People are busier now than ever. And the one common denominator is, I think, is that pet being available to them, whenever they need it. So that relationship, this human-animal bond, has gone from the country farm to the backyard and now to the household. Once pets were integrated in the household, then people’s relationship with that pet, during times of illness, increased and with that, the demand and the need for specialty care.

What’s the number one thing you want people to know about your operation?
I would like to say that cancer is a treatable disease. Differing prognosis. And I like people to be aware that not every cancer needs a surgery, not every cancer needs radiation, I think there are other modalities that we can offer and it’s important that we provide them with the total spectrum. So what I like people to be aware of is, if your pet has cancer, there’s hope.

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