When it’s NOT Cancer

Zeke as a puppy at Astraean Border Collies in Colorado.

There are few things worse to hear on the phone when getting a call from someone who bought one of your puppies than “he has a fast growing lump on his abdomen and his primary vet doesn’t know what it is. It’s the size of a baseball and it wasn’t there 2 days ago.”  Add to that the instant recollection that the first thing this person told you was that they lost their last border collie at only 6 years old to hemangiosarcoma and didn’t want to live through that experience again.

Hemangiosarcoma is a common form of cancer in canines that attacks the lining of the blood vessels and can thus be found anywhere in the body although the spleen and heart are obviously prime targets.  It’s a cruel cancer in that it is malignant and metastasizes easily, it is almost always found late in the disease path once there is already significant organ damage, and the life expectancy post diagnosis is only 6 to 8 weeks.
In what might be seen as an effort to bilk the public, or perhaps simply an option for owners who want “to do something,” the most common treatment is to remove the spleen to prevent the most likely source of a rupture.  The cancer is kind in that death comes rapidly after one of the internal lesions bursts causing massive blood loss. This is thought to be minimally painful as the animal loses consciousness and doesn’t wake again.

Zeke's large seroma before surgery.

The initial diagnosis is vague.  The lump is large and grew very fast and it appears that there is a harder inner core surrounded by a softer shell.  The vet drew a small amount of fluid from the hard mass in the center and made slides: inconclusive.  She then drew off about 25 ml of fluid from the soft outer portion of the mass that was neither straw colored nor blood red, but an in between shade that looked like equal parts blood and water.  She would expect more red blood if it were a fresh hematoma.

I get to work researching and forwarding as much information on cancer and other lumps in dogs. I find an alarming incidence of sarcomas on the dog lists, working and show alike. It seems like almost everyone has a story. I pass along my own experience with one of my previous border collies having a benign hair follicle tumor as well as the numerous warnings about injection site tumors and even lumps caused by migrating fox-tails.

The news of a possible cancer in a dog I bred causes a major reflection on my values and ethics as a breeder. What does this mean for my lines? Can this be bred away from, or do will I have to continue to shoot blind? Is this an isolated environmental incident or is there a genetic predisposition in my dogs? Did my out-cross inadvertently double up on a catalyst for a fast growing malignant sarcoma?

Zeke with his freshly shaved lump

With the identity of the lump still unclear, more samples were sent off to the lab for an expert analysis.  The results indicate a moderate number of mesenchymal cells which could be normal connective tissue or they could signify a spindle cell tumor.  Best case scenario is benign fibrosis or fibroplasia.  Fibrosis is simply an infusion of connective tissue which can indicate the perfectly normal process in which the body deposits collagen as a means to control inflammation and promote healing; this is how scars form.  Zeke did have a recent play-date with a hyper new dog and this could be the result of a bite or an accidental trauma during rough play.

Mesenchymal cells are a type of embryonic undifferentiated connective tissue and are similar in behavior to stem cells as they can further differentiate into muscle, fat, cartilage, and bone cells.  Sarcoma is the name given to the types of cancer that arise from the connective tissue.  Most sarcomas are malignant and although metastasis of soft tissue sarcomas is not likely, they do require large margins to remove which often result in the amputation of limbs.

The not insignificant cost of the surgery ($600+) to remove the lump as if it were malignant versus waiting it out to see if it was a simple wound response that would resolve on its own in a matter of weeks was weighed by the owner and me. It’s a lot of money, trouble, and risk for a boo-boo but if it is a malignant mass the outcome is significantly better the sooner it is removed and fully analysed. The surgery is not without risk but since it’s in the soft tissue on the trunk the surgeon believes that he can close the wound successfully without complication.

A swift resolution is chosen over waiting it out and Zeke goes under to have the mass removed. The surgery proceeds without incident and the Surgeon notes that he had to remove both muscle and fatty tissue at the core of the lump, so Zeke is more likely to be sore than if only fatty tissue were removed as the lining of the muscle tissue is very sensitive.  Although the incision site might never fully smooth out given the aggressive removal with wide margins, it won’t be anything you’ll notice once Zeke’s lush coat grows back in.

Zeke getting a little rest with his Mad Cow and Octopus toys post surgery

The major risks of surgery overcome, all that’s left for a free and clear diagnosis — or as close to one as you’re going to get from a medical industry that doesn’t want to offer promises, especially regarding one of the most common and unpredictable diseases they see — is the final report from the lab.  Zeke’s energy, and more importantly his appetite return well before the results do.  If only his hair would come back as fast.

A frustratingly long time emotionally, but only a few days later, the final results are back from the specialist: organizing seroma with fibrosing cellulitis and granulation tissue, secondary to trauma.  This is the best news possible.  A seroma is like a hematoma, but instead of red blood cells, only the serum is present in large quantities.  It’s a perfectly normal response to trauma caused by ruptures in small blood vessels or tissue resulting in an accumulation of blood plasma and resulting inflammation around the injured tissue.  Translating the oncologist speak that I haven’t already decoded: organizing represents the normal focused immune response instead of a random chaotic growth of certain cancers, and granulation tissue is the familiar puffy and lumpy sponge-like structure common to most wound healing that replaces the initial clot.

So, just in time for Halloween, Zeke got a wicked scar to complement  a Frankendog costume and the rest of us got a lot of peace of mind.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.