In our previous piece, a tiny sample of your unidentified “pet lump” was sent off to the pathologist, and you settled in for a fretful week of waiting. Have you thought about how you might proceed once the report comes back?

When working with a veterinarian, caregivers have an exceptionally high degree of autonomy that sometimes surprises them, especially if they have experience with the “human health care system” in this country. At the vet, you will be asked to make a lot of decisions that would never be placed in your hands at the physician’s office. It’s a source of real unease for some pet owners, since they are not medically trained. Your vet is here to guide you safely through the process.

Interpreting the biopsy report is the first step and could be tricky, since these often sound like they were written in a foreign language. Your lump could have come back benign (that’s the best), malignant (that’s not good), or inconclusive (that’s the most complicated, because it requires a second sample, usually obtained by surgery).

Benign: this mass could be left alone… but not always. A benign (non-cancerous) mass that is taking up too much space or causing the patient to limp or repeatedly breaking open to bleed needs to go. Sometimes this mass just sits there giving its human caretaker anxiety, and there’s some merit to that concern: a lump usually keeps the same label all its life, but on occasion a piece of abnormal tissue could change from benign to malignant. If you, the human, want this thing removed and it is a surgery that could safely be performed on the patient, we will usually do it for you.

Malignant: don’t panic. This (cancerous) mass probably needs to go, but first we need to know all the details that the pathologist can provide, beginning with the exact name of the tissue. That will reveal its tendency toward aggressive and invasive behavior. It will tell us how much normal-appearing tissue needs to be removed for a buffer zone around the mass, to ensure that all the bad stuff is taken away. Some cancers’ behavior profiles require that we investigate the rest of the body before committing to surgery. The bad tissue may have already spread to another part of the patient. That may affect your desire to put him through the procedure, since the offspring of tumor tissue can’t simply be removed by a second surgery on a different part of the body. Some cancers have a (take a breath now) Grave Prognosis, meaning that this condition is virtually guaranteed to take your pet’s life, regardless of whether surgery is performed. In that case, the doctor is still not going to shut the door on you. If a pet owner does decide to pursue treatment with a grave prognosis, a cancer specialist is often their best bet.

That got complicated, fast! Look to your veterinarian for knowledgeable guidance and compassionate support through every type of biopsy result, helping you to select a course that fits you and your individual pet.

Dr. M.S. Regan