There are several different ways of finding out if a lump is a cancer. Each involves having some of the growth tested, but which is best?
There are several ways to collect a sample. Often a biopsy is done. A biopsy involves collecting a piece of the growth for analysis. Sometimes the growth is removed and the entire mass is send off. This is also called a biopsy.
Other times a needle is used to collect some cells from the area in question. These cells are then placed on a glass slide, and the slide is sent for review. This is called a fine needle aspirate.
Finally, cells can be harvested from fluid collected within the chest, abdomen, lungs, or sinuses. This specimen can be sent off as well.
Different pets have different growths in various locations. Which is the best?
For growths on the skin, under the skin, in the spleen, liver, prostate, and some bladder or mouth tumors, often the best first step is the fine needle aspirate. The reason for this is a fine needle aspirate can usually be done without any anesthesia and the procedure itself is over with quickly. Dogs recover almost immediately and there is very little trauma.
Fluid analysis is useful for tumors in the abdomen, chest cavity, and nasal sinus. This fluid can yield a diagnosis, sometimes without invasive surgery.
Fine needle aspirates and fluid analysis are good first steps to plan later surgery and work-up. If a vet removes a cancerous growth for a biopsy without knowing if it is cancerous, a second surgery is often needed to remove more tissue. This second surgery aims at removing more cancer cells that may be left in the area surrounding the growth. A second surgery can often be prevented by knowing what we are dealing with first.
Another reason getting a diagnosis before a surgery is that, sadly, sometimes the tumor has already spread to other areas in the body. If the fine needle aspirate report suggests that the growth has a high likelihood of spreading, often your veterinarian will do tests to determine if spread has already happened. If there is evidence that spread has already occurred, surgical removal of the growth may not make sense.
In some cases doing a surgery is not the best treatment. Cancers that have spread may need chemotherapy, radiation, diet changes, apoptogens, immune supplements, anti-metastatics, and other treatments beyond surgery.
Sometimes a minor biopsy procedure can be done as a first step. The advantage of a biopsy is the pathologist will be able to give a definite diagnosis almost 100% of the time. Occasionally the less invasive tests yield hazy or inconclusive information, which almost never happens with biopsies.
One of the ways a minor biopsy is performed is by taking a small piece of tumor tissue using a biopsy punch or a scalpel. This requires only a stitch or two, and the recovery is usually not bad at all. These tests are often done for growths on the surface of the body, in the mouth, ear canals or genitals.
The bottom line is a diagnosis should be sought before jumping right into surgical removal of growths that may be cancerous. If surgery is the right approach, the right surgery can be done, and appropriate work-up can be performed beforehand. For cancers where surgery is not the best option, other treatments can be started.
For more information on cancer testing as well as a comprehensive road map for the dog cancer journey, see The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.
Dr. Demian Dressler is internationally recognized as “the dog cancer vet” because of his innovations in the field of dog cancer management, and the popularity of his blog here at Dog Cancer Blog. The owner of South Shore Veterinary Care, a full-service veterinary hospital in Maui, Hawaii, Dr. Dressler studied Animal Physiology and received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California at Davis before earning his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University. After practicing at Killewald Animal Hospital in Amherst, New York, he returned to his home state, Hawaii, to practice at the East Honolulu Pet Hospital before heading home to Maui to open his own hospital. Dr. Dressler consults both dog lovers and veterinary professionals, and is sought after as a speaker on topics ranging from the links between lifestyle choices and disease, nutrition and cancer, and animal ethics. His television appearances include “Ask the Vet” segments on local news programs. He is the author of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Hawaii Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Avian Veterinarians, the National Animal Supplement Council and CORE (Comparative Orthopedic Research Evaluation). He is also an advisory board member for Pacific Primate Sanctuary.