We hate the “C” word. Even in medical circles, cancer is this strange, mysterious, all-consuming thing. I don’t think it will ever cease to be strange. Cancer means a cell has achieved immortality and is growing into an increasingly needy monster that demands to be fed as it seeks to expand its borders. That’s crazy.

There are many articles out there about cancer. With this blog post, we’re hoping to help you understand the framework of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

What is cancer?

Let’s narrow down the definition of cancer. Cancer is a malignant neoplasia. Neoplasia refers to an abnormal growth of cells. Malignant refers to how it is behaving – is it invading new tissue, i.e., is it planning complete domination? This is distinct from growths like fatty lumps and warts; these growths are quite content to stay where they are.

There are still important distinctions we have to make though. What is this cancer made of? Where is it growing? How quickly is it growing?


There are still important distinctions we have to make though. What is this cancer made of? Where is it growing? How quickly is it growing?

Why cancer isn’t so simple…

The primary challenge of cancer lies in the initial stages of naming, grading, and staging. Naming is important; the behaviour of the cancer depends on what type of cell has gone rogue. Grading helps us understand how aggressive the cells are. Staging helps us understand how successful they are in their quest for total domination.

In this, we take samples. This can involve many, many steps. The first step is almost always a fine needle aspirate (FNA) which is when your vet uses a needle to retrieve cells from a suspicious lump. We perform cytology on the samples collected, that is, we look at the cells we’ve collected under a microscope.

There are exceptions though. We may not perform FNA if the growing cluster of cells is hard to reach with a needle (especially if it’s internal!), if it’s not physically possible to aspirate the lump, or if the organ is very vascular (i.e., has loads and loads of blood vessels). Occasionally, the samples are non-productive (or non-diagnostic), that is, the sample may not give us any useful information.

When we need more help, the second step is often a biopsy – the type of biopsy we’ll perform depends on our index of suspicion. This is something your vet will discuss with you. Most biopsies will need to perform under general anaesthetic because most of these lump removals will require stitches when we remove the lump(s). This sample is usually submitted to an external laboratory for processing and review by a specialist pathologist. The pathologist will have a look at the cells and, with the clinical history, we provide them, give us an approximation of what the cancer is.

Diagnostic imaging is absolutely indispensable. Diagnostic imaging includes radiographs (X-rays), ultrasound, CT scan, and/or MRI; it helps us spot abnormal growths internally and it can help us stage cancer. Imaging is also important when trying to work out whether or not an abnormal growth can be operated on.

Spoiler Alert: Not All Cancers are the Same

As you have probably guessed, we work really, really hard to figure out what the cancer is. This is because the different types of growths out there can be vastly different. Some can be cured by just cutting them out. Some you can’t. Some require chemotherapy. Some require radiation therapy. Some require a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.

Some we can’t do very much about – remember: it all depends on the cancer involved and how far it has spread.

Our fight against cancer sometimes requires the enlistment of an oncologist (a veterinarian who specialises in cancer). This is especially true if chemotherapy or radiation therapy is required.

Treatment outcomes can depend on how early we catch it. That’s why it’s important to be vigilant and that’s why the annual checkup is so important! Physical examinations can reveal so much. That said, physical examinations only reveal part of the picture. Depending on the age and presentation of your furbaby, your veterinarian may also recommend a blood test.

Need to know about cancer? Let us know your questions in comments! Otherwise, feel free to call or e-mail the clinic for more information!


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