Remove Masses When They’re Small… Please!

Published: March 02, 2015
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I don’t love surgery.

Let me clarify. What I really don’t like is a surgery that is more complicated than it needs to be. That includes mass removals when said mass has been allowed to grow for far too long.

Here’s a typical scenario. An owner finds a small lump on their pet and thinks, “Hmm, maybe it’s nothing. I’ll give it a month and see what happens.” This is a totally appropriate response, but what comes next often leads to problems. After a month of watchful waiting, the mass is still there… maybe a little bigger, but nothing too dramatic. What’s an owner to do?

Make an appointment with your veterinarian to have the mass checked out right now, while it is still small!

Unfortunately, many owners continue to wait, and wait, and wait. (For what, I’m not entirely sure.)

Another potential sticking point arrives once that appointment with the veterinarian does occur. It is impossible to tell what the great majority of masses are just by looking at them. We veterinarians may have a strong suspicion that we are seeing a benign lipoma, a malignant mast cell tumor, etc., but no one can make a definitive diagnosis without removing a sample of tissue and examining it under the microscope. With some types of masses, this can be accomplished at the veterinary clinic with a needle and syringe, but at other times a larger surgical biopsy must be sent to a pathologist for review.

Many owners balk when faced with the stress and expense of an unexpected procedure just to identify the mass. They just want to know if it can be left alone or if it really and truly needs to be removed. Veterinarians understand this… we just can’t give you a truthful answer without testing the mass first.

So what happens next? Ideally, the mass is identified and appropriate treatment follows, but sometimes owners are so frustrated by the recommendation for “all this testing” that they decide to “just keep an eye on it” for awhile longer. Of course, if the mass has been growing it likely will continue to do so (usually at an ever increasing rate), so a “wait and see” approach at this point predictably results in the need for a more difficult and expensive surgery accompanied by a poorer prognosis for the future.

Some veterinarians will just go ahead and remove a mass without first knowing what it is. I’ve done so myself with very small masses, but in general, this is a bad idea. Without this critical information, the surgeon is just taking a guess as to how aggressive they need to be, which can result in the unnecessary removal of a lot of healthy tissue (increasing the risk of postsurgical complications) or even worse, unwittingly leaving cancerous cells behind.

So please, get any new masses you find on your pet checked out and, if necessary, removed when they are still small. Doing so is the best way to keep these surgeries as simple, inexpensive, and successful as possible.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Stefano Tinti / Shutterstock