Locally-Owned in Oakdale and St. Paul, Minnesota

Navigating a Pet’s Cancer Diagnosis: Part I

A blue background with magnetic letters that spells out "CANCER"

“It’s a mast cell tumor.”

Dr. Meyer’s words hit like a ton of bricks. I had taken my dog, Sally, to a routine annual checkup with her dermatologist, and Dr. Meyer had taken a fine needle aspirate sample of a small lump on Sally’s chest.

With few exceptions, Sally has always been healthy. A schnauzer Pomeranian cross, she came into my life when she was found, at eight weeks old, inside a dumpster. She is a bright, cheerful dog, and always enthusiastic about life. To say I was not expecting a diagnosis of cancer for Sally was an understatement.

Dr. Meyer gave me a chair to sit on and I started to cry. I have worked in veterinary medicine for most of my life. In my mind, the words “mast cell tumor” have always been associated with death and destruction. What follows is all I have learned since Sally’s diagnosis.

Maybe your pet is facing the same kind of cancer; that wouldn’t be surprising since mast cell tumors are the most common type of skin tumor found in dogs. If that is the case, I’m glad you found this blog, and I hope it is helpful to you.

Two photos of Sally, a schnauzer Pomeranian cross.


I had found the small lump on Sally’s chest before her dermatology appointment, but I knew that older dogs could get lumps and bumps that weren’t of concern, so I hadn’t rushed to the vet to have it examined. Also, this lump seemed to come and go, sometimes obvious to the touch, sometimes less so. I later learned that mast cell tumors will shrink and swell alternately. Mast cell tumors can also be red, ulcerated, or look like a bug bite. 

Because these tumors can go unnoticed by pet owners, it is important that your pet receives regular veterinary care. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough examination to ensure that lumps and bumps are documented and tested. Catching mast cell tumors early, before they have time to grow large and potentially spread, is important to your pet’s long-term survival. 

Coping with Your Pet’s Diagnosis 

Following is what has been helpful to my mental health during this time. 

  1. Limiting internet searches. I understand you probably found this article via the internet, but I would encourage you to limit the information you consume Below are some well-respected sources for information on cancer in pets. Your veterinarian may also have resources to recommend. 
    • Veterinary Cancer Society – Contains resources for pet owners facing a cancer diagnosis for their pet, like a database of clinical trials and a list of Frequently Asked Questions about cancer in pets.
    • American Veterinary Medical Association – Provides education for pet owners around cancer in pets 
    • Vet Specialists – This website provides information and articles on cancer in pets. Just type your key words into the search bar on the home page to find what you’re looking for. You can also search a directory of veterinary specialists for one in your area. 
  2. Seeking support from people who will understand. Hopefully, you have people who understand the bond between you and your pet and will understand how devastating a cancer diagnosis can be. On your own timeline, I would recommend sharing this news with those people so you can reach out when your pet’s diagnosis may feel overwhelming.  
  3. Giving yourself grace. A diagnosis of cancer may prompt many questions, some of which may not yet have answers. Along with navigating the unknown, you may be feeling many emotions: grief, guilt, anger, shock, fear, overwhelm, resignation, helplessness, and others. Give yourself space and time to feel whatever you feel. 

Part II of this blog will cover diagnostic and treatment options for mast cell tumors, some factors to include in your decision-making process, and an update of where we’re at with Sally’s cancer. 

More Reading:

Heidi Brenegan, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota












Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, Fast Track Triage, color-coded triage system, pet emergency, Twin Cities emergency vet, Minnesota emergency vet, Saint Paul emergency vet, Oakdale emergency vet

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