AMONG the most surprising and startling discoveries one can find as a pet owner is a lump or bump on your dog. As you run your hand over his coat, you notice a lump that wasn't there before.

There is nothing more scary than the C word.

Cancer in pets is on the rise and is the No. 1 natural cause of death for dogs.

For dogs over 6 years old, 60 percent will be diagnosed with some form of cancer, and nearly half the deaths of pets more than 10 years old are from cancer.

With treatment advances, pets with cancer have a much better chance of survival than they did just a few years ago.

Unfortunately, many tumors are blown off as lipomas, a benign fatty lump. Although they are common, many are overdiagnosed and many so-called lipomas turn out to be cancer.

Unfortunately, some folks, including a few veterinarians, have propagated the myth that any soft tumor is a lipoma.

Within the last two weeks, I saw more than four cases of cancer that appeared to be lipoma-like. All of them, when biopsied, came back as mast cell tumor, a type of skin cancer.

Truthfully, there is no exact way for anyone to know what type of cancer one has without a biopsy.

I have been surprised on many occasions, where I thought a tumor was benign based on physical examination while laboratory analysis revealed cancer.

Symptoms

What are the common signs of cancer in companion animals?

As in human cancer, detection is the first step to recovery. Knowing what to look for could save your companion animal's life.

Common signs of cancer include:

-Abnormal swellings that continue to grow.

-Sores that do not heal.

-Weight loss or loss of appetite.

-Offensive odor.

-Bleeding or discharge from any body opening.

-Persistent lameness or stiffness.

-Difficulty eating or swallowing.

-Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina.

-Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating.

Diagnosis

Many lumps can be analyzed by a needle biopsy. Others are analyzed by removing the lump and sending the entire removed portion to the laboratory for analysis.

There may be reasons where one may be preferable to another.

Other diagnostic tests include radiographs (X-rays) to check for cancer spread, blood tests to check for organ function or to examine cancer cells in blood and ultrasounds to examine the organs.

Other tests, such as bone-marrow analysis and CT scans are used for staging if indicated.

Treatment

Surgery is perhaps the most common way to treat cancer.

Many lumps and bumps, especially on the skin's surface can be easily removed and biopsied. In many cases, surgery is curative. In other cases, other treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation or immunotherapy are used.

Chemotherapy has been very promising for certain cancers such as lymphoma. Dogs and cats seem to tolerate chemotherapy much better than people do.

Chemotherapy allowed one of my patients, Lucky, to live approximately 21/2years of good, quality, pain-free life.

After witnessing success in such cases, I have become a believer in its use for certain cancers.

Almost all pets with cancer can be helped.

You can beat the darkness of cancer with knowledge.

Raj Salwan is a second-generation veterinarian and has been around veterinary medicine for more than 21 years. He practices at American Animal Care Center in Fremont and can be reached at drsalwan@aol.com.