The Pet Cancer Foundation: Interview with Founder and CEO Len Boyko

The Pet Cancer Foundation
The Pet Cancer Foundation is a new non-profit organization that is focused on making pet cancer more manageable and affordable.

The Pet Cancer Foundation is a new non-profit organization that is focused on making pet cancer more manageable and affordable. The Pet Cancer Foundation aims to improve the life expectancy and quality of life for pets that are diagnosed with cancer. Treats for More Tomorrows is its first campaign that aims to give animal lovers, pet parents, and the general public an opportunity to support pets in need.

According to The National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research, cancer is the leading cause of death in senior dogs and cats, and almost 12 million cases of cancer are diagnosed annually. There are 442 types of benign and malignant tumors that have been identified in dogs and cats. When cancer is suspected, pets face limited and often invasive diagnostic options before being treated by surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or immunotherapy. While a recent survey revealed that 86% of pet parents would pay whatever it takes if their pet needed extensive veterinary care, it could cost thousands of dollars to diagnose and treat cancer, depending upon the type and severity, and pets may face long wait times for vet appointments.

The Pet Cancer Foundation will take a holistic approach to address the needs of pets with cancer and pet parents navigating a pet cancer diagnosis, by expanding research opportunities, improving treatment options, and elevating community support for pet families. This will include exploring ways to diagnose pets with cancer earlier, evaluating species-specific treatment options and working in conjunction with the veterinary community on better palliative care options for dogs and cats who have been diagnosed with cancer.

To support pets in need, More Tomorrows treat boxes will be available to purchase on The Pet Cancer Foundation’s website beginning on November 1. Boxes of More Tomorrows are filled with human treats that dogs can eat. The treats are made with organic ingredients, and oven-roasted in an FDA approved bakery. Purchases can be personalized by selecting from a variety of flavors. Orders will be shipped to recipients starting in early 2023. Profits generated from treat sales will be used by The Pet Cancer Foundation to carry out critical work. Next year, The Pet Cancer Foundation seeks to invest $2.5M in research to find cancer earlier in pets, an additional $1M to research pet specific cancer treatment options and $1M to provide veterinarians with better information to improve the cancer care that pets receive.

Len Boyko is the Founder and CEO of both the American and Canadian Pet Cancer Foundations, which operate as sibling organizations referred to jointly as the Pet Cancer Foundation. Prior to starting this project, Len had ample experience working in the CPG industry; he also helped grow businesses and built a diverse network of contacts that created an opportunity to make an impact in pet cancer. Having cared for several pets with cancer and having very different outcomes provided Len with the inspiration to get involved and work towards a meaningful difference in cancer diagnosis and care for all pets. He recently discussed this initiative via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): When did you first get interested in medicine for pets and why did you focus on cancer medicines per se?

Len Boyko (LB): Our veterinarian has been a huge inspiration for the foundation. When we started going to him, it was to care for Shelley, a very injured cat we adopted from a shelter where my wife and I were volunteering. The treatment and care our vet gave to Shelley was quite remarkable and far more than we thought possible. This experience was an eye-opener to the standard of care that every animal should receive. Fast forward three years and Shelley developed oral squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) at the back of her mouth. With her pre-existing medical conditions, we didn’t have options to treat her and had to say goodbye four months later. Two years later, another of our cats developed, squamous cell carcinoma. Thankfully, surgery alone was able to remove it. Although there’s no “better” cancer, I felt that oral SCC was a particularly cruel cancer for an animal to have and became interested in looking for ways that could prevent or reduce the prevalence of cancer in our pets. At the time I explored several emerging treatment options; however, the research was still very early, and I reluctantly shelved the pursuit.

MM: When and how did you come up with the idea to start a non-profit organization?

LB: Several years after those two cancer experiences, I met with a long-time business associate who told me about his cancer journey, surviving Stage 4 oral SCC, and how the experience impacted his life. This life-changing event caused him to rethink his business priorities and he shifted his professional focus to working on business initiatives with a social impact like cancer. This conversation and the coincidence of it being the same cancer Shelley had, opened my eyes to the value I could bring in working towards better cancer care for pets using my business experience and I started to investigate options to make an impact. It took approximately a year from that meeting to build a business case for the direction we’re taking, and to make the determination that a non-profit entity was a necessary component of making the impact I envisioned was possible.

MM: How did your background in business help you establish a non-profit?

LB: I believe that many non-profit founders get started and act when they see an injustice, neglect, or experience some type of loss. Unfortunately, some of those founders don’t start out with a long-term outlook, they just get to work on helping those in need. Animal rescues and their founders are a great example of this; they spend so much of their time and energy on saving the next dog or cat that they have little time or money to invest in solving the reason why they need to save them in the first place. It’s a cycle that’s very hard to break for the small organization because they’re focused on saving the animal, then raising money to pay for it, and then doing it all over again, hundreds or thousands of times. It’s physically, emotionally, and financially exhausting on the heroes who do this work, and they just don’t have anything left to take on the systemic issues that caused them to act.

I knew we couldn’t do that with cancer, it’s just too complex and costly, and we needed to take a long-term outlook to make an impact. It required a business approach that defined an achievable future state that would make a difference for as many pets as possible. This is where my experience was most helpful, defining the future state and building the team and conditions for it to be successful. I’ve been very fortunate to work for/with some amazing business leaders over the past 30 years, several at the very top of their industries. Those learnings have been invaluable in founding our organization.

MM: How long did it take to plan the Foundation and was it difficult to make it a reality?

LB: It took approximately one year of research into animal cancers and the current state of pet cancer care to formulate a future state of the organization. With the future state in place, we started work to build both foundations knowing where we were heading while understanding our path wasn’t a straight line. The journey to get to our future state would require adjustment as we apply new learnings to our operations. This has been more challenging than starting a normal business due to the increased regulation non-profits are required to follow as a non-taxable entity. It would have been much easier and faster to build a normal for-profit corporation, however, that type of entity would simply not be able to achieve the long-term impact we intend for pets. The compromise is akin to the tortoise and the hare; do you want to get there fast, or do you want to win in the end. We’re in a 10-year ultra-marathon, and we’ve only begun.

MM: What have been the biggest challenges and rewards of helming this initiative?

LB: I think the biggest challenge we face is being surrounded by cancer daily. That may sound odd considering we’re a cancer organization; however, although I knew the numbers were overwhelming with 12 million pets getting cancer every year, I was caught off guard by just how many people I would speak to daily that have lost pets to cancer. When you set out to make a difference knowing it’s going to take a decade, and then hear that volume of heartbreak from your volunteers and the public every day, it’s a lot to process. On the reward-side, the amazing people that have contributed to raising the roof and building a very special organization has been inspiring. We have some of the brightest, most intelligent, and kindest people all coming together to help pets, and this is the most rewarding aspect of building our Foundation. That is, until the day comes where we can all celebrate the achievement of our ultimate goal, which is to improve the life expectancy and quality of life of pets with cancer, affordably, for families. That will be a very special day.

MM: What has most surprised you about cancer research and/or treatments for animals?

LB: I think the biggest surprise was the disparity in funds available for cancer research between humans and pets. Our review of the North American market found an estimated 3,800 organizations raising approximately $30 Billion annually for human cancer initiatives. This contrasted to just a handful of organizations raising less than $15 Million annually for animal cancer initiatives. With an average cost of $200 thousand per pet cancer study, that doesn’t go very far, and almost entirely, this funding is distributed to researchers working comparatively on human cancers through a canine model. This means cats have almost no representation in cancer research, and there is little funding available without the requirement for a human outcome in the research.

We also found that cats and dogs are developing 442 different tumor types, and although cancers across species may share up to 80% of the DNA; dogs, cats, and humans are simply not the same. The differences between a human, a Great Dane, a Chihuahua, and a cat should be obvious to everyone, and that doesn’t speak to the other 400 pure breeds of cats and dogs, or the crossbreeds of each species. To suggest that any research targeting a human outcome is going to provide the most optimal result for the cat or dog, and specifically its personal genetics (Great Dane or Chihuahua), is a stretch, but that’s where we are, and why our organization is focusing on species-specific support for cats and dogs. We have no stake or interest in human outcomes and that makes our approach novel in the field.

MM: What do you wish more people knew about caring for pets with this illness?

LB: That cancer isn’t always an immediate death sentence, and many pets can have a lot more quality time left when given the chance to live. Pets don’t know they have cancer; humans on the other hand hear the “c” word and allow their emotions and preconceived notions of the disease into their decision-making. It’s very hard to be objective when emotions are involved and it’s always the pet that pays the price for our decisions. Pet families should fully inform themselves and talk to their vet or other vet specialists to assess the situation with a clear mind, before making any decisions. Seek out second opinions with different expertise – no one should be offended that you want to be certain with any life and death decision. Be rational, take one day at a time, and ensure your pet and you, enjoys every single one of them. One of our volunteers had a cat that lived eight years after being diagnosed with mammary gland cancer and given a prognosis of just a few months. Had they decided to euthanize following the diagnosis, both the cat and the family would have lost out on years of wonderful life, love, and companionship.

MM: What has been the best thing about working in this field so far?

LB: The very best thing about working in the field so far, is meeting the amazingly talented and incredibly knowledgeable individuals who sign-up to help build our organization and work towards our future. Some of them are researchers who have dogs and cats and found themselves in the very same position as those pet owners without their expertise and being taken aback by their own pet cancer experience. Think of what it would be like to have 20 or more years of advanced knowledge in a field and be gobsmacked when your pet is diagnosed with cancer. Those professionals often have an immense desire to pitch-in to ensure their current or future pets get the best care possible. Our efforts are starting to make experts in the field more aware of animal cancers and over time this will pay dividends towards better treatment options for pets.

MM: How do you hope the Foundation evolves over the next five years?

LB: In five years, the organization anticipates having all our core major initiatives underway, which are the backbone for achieving our future state. Our plans call for launching one major initiative every year, and each will build on what came before. This structured and focused approach will begin to pay dividends for pets by year five, while cancer progress will take approximately seven to ten years.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?

LB: In term of projects coming up soon, those are described on our website. We haven’t discussed our fundraising efforts yet, and this of course is critical to our success. The organization just launched More Tomorrows, our in-house brand to raise money for our foundations. We’d like everyone to know that 100% of the profits from every More Tomorrows’ sale, goes back to fund our work and help pets. The value we’re providing doesn’t just stop with the quality of our products, More Tomorrows gives every pet family the opportunity to purchase goods they use daily, in support of an organization working towards giving their pet every good day possible. By supporting us, you’re also supporting your own pets’ future.  Our first products are human treats that dogs can eat, and they come in two great recipes: Pumpkin and Apple, and Sweet Potato and Banana. These are available by pre-order on our website, for a limited time. You can read more about them here.

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