Your veterinarian just called and told you the small lump they removed from your beloved dog is cancerous as he suspected but, worse, it is a malignant tumor. Your heart is in your throat, you ask him for a prognosis. To your surprise, he says the surgery was curative but you need to keep an eye out for new growths, as they need to be removed right away. You are flabbergasted that a malignant tumor can be cured with surgery alone. How is that possible when everything you have ever heard about malignant cancer usually is accompanied by a solemn death knell?
Comprehending what your Vet is saying
Comprehending what your vet is explaining to you or what you are reading helps you to make the right decisions for your pet.
The proper name for cancer is neoplasia, meaning new growth. In its simplest form, cancer is simply an overgrowth of new cells and the body begins to suffer when the nutrients required to feed the cancer cannot be met by the food intake but are taken from the lean tissue instead. Often the first symptom we see in our pets suffering from cancer is weight loss; this is an indicator that the cancer is already sucking its nutrients directly from its host.
Malignant tumors have three goals in life: to live, to grow, and to take new ground. Unlike benign tumors that grow slowly, and that most often have a uniform shape and do not spread, malignant tumors grow quickly, are irregularly shaped and often have long tentacles that make surgical removal more difficult. Worse, they metastasize or spread through the lymphatic or circulatory system so what started as a mammary tumor can become lung, spleen, or bone cancer. There are hundreds of types of malignant tumors in dogs and they run the gamut on degrees of invasive, aggressive, and lethal behaviors.
Stage and Grade
Stage and grade are two words that are thrown around in oncology but few vets take the time to explain the difference. Stage describes where the particular tumor is at in regards to growth. An early stage or stage I tumor is small and non-spreading where as a grade IV tumor is big, may be part of a cluster of tumors, and has invaded another part of the body. Stage I tumors have a far better prognosis then stage III or IV tumors. The term grade refers to the aggressiveness of the tumor. A grade I tumor means the tumor is not aggressive so the likelihood of it spreading is rare. A grade IV tumor is extremely aggressive, making treatment far more difficult.
Types of Malignant Tumors in Dogs and their Symptoms
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in dogs and is six times more common in dogs then in cats. Overexposure to the sun considered the most likely culprit, especially in short haired dogs. Common skin cancers include squamous cell carcinomas or SCC, hemangiosarcoma, fibrosarcoma, and mast cell tumors.
SCC is most often seen in areas of little pigment or thinly furred areas such as ears, face and the forehead area. They start as non-healing sores or lumps and without treatment, eventually metastasize to the internal organs.
Hemangiosarcomas are usually associated with the spleen, however, they can develop as skin cancer. They begin as red or black spots on the skin.
Fibrosarcoma begins in the connective tissue in the skull, spine, ribs and pelvis. Over time, it will wrap around the tissues, inhibiting movement.
Mast cell tumors start as small lumps that seem benign in nature. However, they can spread indiscriminately and are considered the most lethal of all the skin cancers. Treatment usually involves surgery to remove the lump.
Mammary tumors are the most common form of cancer in unspayed females with over half being malignant tumors. Spaying a female dog before her first heat cycle precludes any chance of mammary tumors developing and each heat cycle she goes through increases the risk of developing this invasive from of cancer. Symptoms include small lumps in the mammary tissue and prognosis is dependent on how quickly treatment is administered.
Oral tumors in dogs are most often malignant. Unfortunately, by the time they are found, quite often they are far advanced and little can be done for the dog, as surgery to remove the tumor is difficult if the tumor has spread into the nasal cavity or eye area.
Nasal Tumors Sneezing, difficulty breathing, nosebleeds, or a discharge from the nose can indicate a nasal tumor. They are rare but almost exclusively malignant and treatment is difficult, much like oral tumors.
Bone cancer is unfortunately common in large and giant breeds and usually starts at the site of a previous injury or vaccination. Pain, heat in the area, limping, swelling, and lethargy are the most common symptoms.
Cancer of the lymph system in dogs is common. There are two types: lymphoma that affects the entire body and another that involves the alimentary, thymic, and cutaneous glands. It can include a variety of body systems and symptoms include enlargement of the lymph glands, depression, weight loss, and anorexia.
Abdominal tumors are uncommon but are usually malignant and early diagnosis is rare. Symptoms include weight loss, diarrhea or constipation, vomiting blood, bloody stools, pain or discomfort when moving, difficulty getting comfortable when lying down and stiffness of movement.
Lung cancer is not common in dogs except as a secondary cancer from another form of cancer that metastasized to the lungs.
Treatment for Malignant Tumors in Dogs
The treatment of malignant tumors in dogs is a difficult decision to make for owners and understandable, we all want our favorite companions to live long, healthy lives with no pain or suffering. Research and education about your dog’s cancer are your most important resources right now. Take some time to make the right decision and always keep your pet’s welfare at heart.
Depending on what stage and grade the cancer is, most veterinarians will suggest surgery to remove the tumor and chemotherapy to kill any remaining cells. Alternatively, many people opt to treat the cancer holistically feeling that whatever days the dog has left should be comfortable and happy days versus the pain of surgery and discomfort of chemo.
The decision is your own and you know your pet best, contact a holistic veterinarian to get a second opinion and start a treatment plan that best fits you and your pet.
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