Dr. Eward's work has inspired doctors and vets to share research and knowledge

By Michelle Boudin
Updated August 23, 2016 02:51 PM
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Shawn Rocco/Duke Health

Dr. Will Eward spends half his week treating pets, the other half treating people in Durham, North Carolina. The 42- year-old is both a veterinarian and an oncologist, specializing in treating cancer patients of the two legged and four-legged kind. He points to a dog named after a basketball star as one of reasons why.

His name was Shaq and he was a 12-year-old golden retriever with a cancerous tumor the size of a basketball. “I’ll never forget him,” Eward tells PEOPLE.

Shaq’s family came to the vet desperate to keep him alive as the little girl who’d grown up with him prepared to get married. “We managed to get the tumor out and he lived another fifteen months. The girl and her new husband got into a car at the end of the wedding to leave on their honeymoon and Shaq died 45 minutes later.”

It’s that kind of pet loyalty that the father of three says pushed him to do something incredible in his efforts to save his canine patients. He was working as a vet in 2000, treating dogs with osteosarcomas (96 percent of dogs with this type of cancer die within a year of being diagnosed) when he decided to visit what he calls “the human” hospital to see how doctors were treating humans with the same tumors.

“I wanted to see what we could learn from the human doctors.”

So in 2003, Eward went back to medical school, this time becoming an oncologist.

Shawn Rocco/Duke Health

He was stunned to realize many of his new colleagues didn’t know about the similarities between dogs and humans fighting this type of cancer.

“I got to medical school and was really excited to talk to doctors and no one on the human side was really aware this happened in dogs.”

He says the dual roles have been invaluable in treating all of his patients, especially because this type of cancer is so rare in humans.

“I have a better understanding of [human] cancer because of my work with dogs. It goes both ways. We get a lot of insight on how these sarcomas behave seeing them in dogs. If you’re trying to figure out how cancer behaves you need to see it often and with dogs, unfortunately, we have the chance to see it over and over again.”

Earlier this year, Eward’s work helped launch a unique partnership between the College of Veterinary Medicine at NC State and the Duke Cancer Center called the Consortium for Comparative Canine Oncology, which brings together doctors and researchers in a program where they’re encouraged to swap ideas and share research.

Despite the fact that human patients travel from across the country to see him, Eward admits, he has a soft spot for the animals, “My heart is with the dogs. Your heart just goes out to them because they don’t understand what’s happening and they really are suffering.”

But he says, the goal is obviously the same for all of his patients. “If I’m an MD, this is how I can learn, I can get insight from my canine patients that could save my human patients.”

And he says, that’s really what dogs are all about, helping their owners. Loving their owners.

“It’s like Shaq; He was just hanging on for the little girl he grew up with. It was amazing. I’ll never forget that.”