If a dog has a benign tumor that is completely and successfully removed with surgery, we expect them to be cured of that disease. Benign tumors cannot spread to distant organs and if surgery was adequate, the tumor will not regrow at the surgery site.
Veterinary oncologists tend not to use the word 'cure' when talking about malignant tumors. A malignant tumor is basically any tumor that has the ability to spread to another organ.
There are many cases where we expect that a patient will live for years after successful treatment and that they will ultimately die from something else, but because we cannot predict with 100% certainty that their cancer will not return in some way, we cannot use the word cure.
For example, if a patient is successfully treated for low-grade soft tissue sarcoma, grade I mast cell tumor, or low-grade II mast cell tumor, we expect that they will live for years and will eventually pass away from something else.
Even though this is the expectation, we can't say that they're cured, because there's still a small chance that the patient's cancer will return at some point (unfortunately, cancer is inherently unpredictable).
After treatment is finished for a particular tumor, we recommend routine monitoring, usually at three-month intervals (at least initially). At these recheck visits, we monitor for evidence of cancer recurrence (cancer returning to the surgery site) and metastasis (cancer spread to a lymph node, lungs or abdominal organ).
We typically feel that if cancer has not returned after approximately three years, it is unlikely to return in the future.
How do you know if your dog will live for years with treatment?
Get the facts.
In order to help a family understand how long their dog will live with different treatment options we have to know (1) what type of cancer is present, (2) has the cancer spread/metastasized, (3) does their dog have any other underlying conditions that might limit his life expectancy like heart or kidney disease or a tumor in the spleen or lung (sometimes these are incidental findings that we just happen to find when we're doing a complete work-up on a patient with cancer).
Answering these questions involves sampling the tumor, assessing the lungs with chest x-rays or CT scan, assessing the abdomen with ultrasound or CT scan, sometimes sampling a lymph node, and performing full blood work and a urinalysis.
There are many cases when a skin tumor is removed very narrowly, yet is technically removed completely. In this case, the pathology report will list the diagnosis and comment, complete excision. Many vets don't know how to read the fine print and look for clues that suggest the tumor is going to grow back (this topic isn't covered in vet school). As an oncologist, we frequently see clients that are shocked when a tumor returns that they thought was completely removed.
To prevent this scenario, it's always a good idea to chat with an oncologist after a cancer diagnosis, even if it's just to have them review the pathology report. The oncologist can determine the likelihood that the tumor will return or metastasize and let you know if any additional treatment is recommended.
How do you increase the chance that your dog will live for years with treatment?
See an oncologist. Tell them that your goal is for your dog to live for years and ask them (1) is this possible and (2) what would it take.
They will likely start by getting an accurate diagnosis of what type of tumor your dog has. The next step is usually to determine if cancer has spread to other areas of the body and if your dog has any underlying or silent conditions that could limit their life expectancy. Often all of these tests can usually be done on the same day.
Once the oncologist has all of this information, they will be able to tell you if long-term survival (survival for years) is possible, and which treatment(s) would be needed to help you achieve this.
How long will my dog live?
How long a patient will live with cancer depends largely on which type of cancer a dog develops but is also heavily dependent on how the family chooses to treat. Make sure you hear all of your options so you can make an educated decision.
Dr. Lori Cesario
Board Certified Veterinary Oncologist
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