Veterinary Surgery and Cancer Treatment

Clinical Oncology Service
Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (VHUP)
Last Modified: November 1, 2001

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There are many ways to treat cancer including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Among these, surgery is the oldest and most commonly used form of therapy. Specifically, surgery means the cutting away of tissues. Your veterinarian may recommend surgery for several reasons. These include complete removal of a tumor, partial removal of a tumor, or exploration of a particular area to obtain a sample of tumor tissue and evaluate the extent of normal tissue involvement. In all cases, any tissue removed by surgery is submitted for biopsy (i.e., given to a pathologist to obtain a specific diagnosis).


Complete cancer removal

Surgery is the standard, and often the only, form of treatment for most benign and some malignant cancers. In these instances the goal of surgery is to remove all of the tumor cells present in a given location, thereby curing the patient or at the least relieving symptoms for an extended period of time. The expected success rate depends on many factors, including size and location of the tumor, specific tumor type, and type and extent of the surgical procedure.

Partial removal of the cancer: debulking

Some cancers are too large or are in locations where they cannot be removed completely by surgery alone. In these cases surgery is used to remove as much of the cancer as possible, while minimizing damage to surrounding normal tissues and vital structures. Because cancer cells have been left behind, some additional form of cancer treatment is used following debulking surgery, such as radiation or chemotherapy.

Exploratory surgery

When cancers are located within the body cavities (i.e., the chest and abdomen), it may be impossible to determine prior to surgery whether complete tumor removal can be accomplished. In these cases, surgery is used to explore, or get a better look at, the tumor and make a decision intraoperatively as to the best surgical approach. This may be a complete removal, debulking, or simply a small biopsy for diagnostic purposes. Before exploratory surgery is considered, the pet owner, oncologist, and surgeon should discuss the various treatment options available depending on what is found during surgery.


The majority of pets having surgery undergo general anesthesia. VHUP uses the most modern and safe anesthe.ic drugs available, and patients are continuously monitored with state of the art technology. Anesthetic protocols are individually tailored to each pet's medical status, which takes into account such factors as age, liver, kidney, and heart function, and any underlying medical problems. Most pets are at minimal risk for problems associated with general anesthesia.

Recovery from surgery

All pets experience mild pain and discomfort after surgery. Pain medication is available and is used routinely. Most surgical wounds require little or no care beyond observation and simple hygiene. Each specific surgery and tumor type has it's own set of potential complications. Not all of these potential complications are predictable; however, unforseen complications are rare. If risk factors are present, supportive measures before, during, and after surgery are employed. Prior to surgery, your veterinarian will discuss with you any recognized risk factors and known potential complications relevant to your pet. For those pets that will require nutritional support after surgery, a variety of feeding tubes may be placed at the time of surgery.

Follow-up care

Depending on many factors, such as cancer type, completeness of surgical removal, and the likelyhood of cancer spread, additional treatments may be recommended for your pet, and you will be referred to the appropriate cancer specialists to discuss these options. If surgery is the only treatment indicated at this time, your doctor will recommend an appropriate reexamination schedule and follow-up testing to monitor your pet for recurrence of cancer. The type of tests and frequency of reexamination vary with each case, and will be discussed on an individual basis.


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