Hemangiosarcoma is a malignant tumor of blood vessel cells. With the exception of the skin form (which can often be eliminated by surgery), a diagnosis of hemangiosarcoma is bad news. This tumor is associated with serious internal bleeding and rapid internal spread. Fortunately, it is not a completely without therapy options and, as long as expectations are realistic, temporary remissions are possible.
Any breed of dog can be affected but a predisposition has been identified in the German shepherd dog, the golden retriever, and the Labrador retriever. Median age at the time of diagnosis is 10 years.
Hemangiosarcoma can theoretically arise from any tissue where there are blood vessels (which amounts to anywhere in the body) but there are three classical locations which account for most presentations:
THE SKIN FORM
The skin form of hemangiosarcoma is the best type to have as it is the most easily removed surgically and thus has the greatest potential for complete cure.
WHAT TO KNOW WHEN A SKIN GROWTH BIOPSY COMES BACK AS HEMANGIOSARCOMA:
The biopsy report will indicate whether or not the growth was completely excised. If the tissue completely surrounding the growth is normal, this indicates that the growth has been removed completely and that it should not grow back.
If one wants to be absolutely positive that no tumor spread has yet occurred, the following non-invasive (but not inexpensive) testing is necessary.
SUBCUTANEOUS OR HYPODERMAL HEMANGIOSARCOMA
The overlying skin is often totally normal on top of a subcutaneous hemangiosarcoma and often the surgeon is surprised to find a dark red blood growth under the skin when the tumor is removed.
Since up to 60% of hypodermal hemangiosarcomas spread internally the above three tests to rule out tumor spread are more important.
HEMANGIOSARCOMA OF THE SPLEEN
(original graphic by marvistavet.com)
Radiograph of a dog's abdomen showing a dramatically enlarged spleen. The spleen has been outlined for those unfamiliar with reading radiographs.
The spleen is a fairly deep-seated abdominal organ that tends to go unnoticed unless it develops a growth of unusual enlargement. Splenic growths have the unfortunate tendency to break open and bleed profusely regardless of whether they are benign or malignant. While a splenectomy (removal of the spleen) certainly ends the prospect of this type of life-threatening sudden bleed, splenic hemangiosarcoma is still a rapidly spreading malignancy.
When a splenic mass is detected, it may not be possible to tell prior to splenectomy whether or not the mass is malignant or not (though certainly basic testing is performed in an attempt to determine this.) Read about splenectomy to review the details of splenic mass evaluation. Chemotherapy after removal of the splenic hemangiosarcoma is reviewed here so see the hemangiosarcoma link on the splenectomy page when you are ready to return for more information.
SURGERY ALONE: Unless the hemangiosarcoma is superficial in the skin and can be completely removed before it invades the deeper tissues under the skin, surgery alone is not going to be very satisfying. While removing the spleen, affected liver lobes, right auricle of the heart or other area where the main tumor is located will control the cycle of bleeding and clotting, it will not meaningfully alter the progression of the cancer. Survival times are typically 1-3 months for surgery alone.
FOLLOWING SURGERY WITH CHEMOTHERAPY: Survival times for surgery followed by chemotherapy typically range from 140-200 days. Combinations of doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, and vincristine are typically used with no protocol distinguishing itself as superior to the others so far. A new medication called Toceranib phosphate (Palladia®) is being investigated for use against this tumor and results are promising. The field of veterinary oncology is fast moving so for the most up to date statistics and options, it is best to see a veterinary oncologist.
SKIPPING SURGERY AND JUST USING CHEMOTHERAPY: It seems intuitively bad to leave a large potentially bleeding cancer in place and attempt to attack it with medication only but in one study doxorubicin alone yielded a good response in approximately 40% of patients with inoperable hemangiosarcoma (range of survival was 13-190 days). Some of the dogs responded as well as those that had both surgery and chemotherapy.
RADIOTHERAPY AS AN ADJUNCT TO CHEMOTHERAPY: This is only an option for hemangiosarcomas in the muscle or under the skin as those in the abdomen or heart are too deep. In a study of 20 dogs, 70% experienced shrinkage of the tumor, 20% experienced complete (though temporary) resolution of the tumor, and the median survival time was 95 days.
ON THE HORIZON: Immunotherapy is an active area of research with the idea being to find a vaccine that will induce the patient's own immune system to seek and attack the tumor. This area appears very promising but is still in an experimental stage. Antiangiogenic therapy involves reducing the tumor's ability to generate blood vessels to feed itself. This area is also investigational at this time. It may be possible for your pet to participate in a funded study. Your oncologist can direct you.
HEMANGIOSARCOMA IN CATS
As cancers go in cats, hemangiosarcoma is not a common one as it is for dogs but cats still can get hemangiosarcomas. There appear to be four main types of hemangiosarcoma in cats:
Recent studies indicate that the dermal and subcutaneous forms are the most common. These forms have a predisposition to developing on the head, which suggests that sun exposure is a risk factor. For the dermal and subcutaneous forms of feline hemangiosarcoma, surgical removal is the chief form of therapy and is the most likely to be curative for dermal forms. Subcutaneous hemangiosarcomas are more difficult to remove completely and have a 60% recurrence rate after surgery. The visceral form is the most aggressive form with approximately 30% of cats being far gone enough to warrant euthanasia at the time of initial diagnosis (or having already died with the diagnosis being made on a post-mortem exam).
In dogs, adding chemotherapy to surgery has been helpful in extending the disease-free interval. Certainly protocols are available for cats, but so few cats have been treated that statistics comparing protocols or even comparing surgery plus chemotherapy treatment vs. surgery alone are not available.
One useful finding that has emerged from retrospective studies is the significance of the mitotic figure count on the biopsy sample. A mitotic figure is a cell that is in the process of cell division when it is fixed in formaldehyde. Since rapid cell division is a feature of malignancy, the number of mitotic figures seen on a slice of tissue can indicate how aggressive a tumor is. Apparently more than 3 mitotic figures per high power microscope field indicates a much shorter survival time than would be achieved in a case with a smaller number of mitotic figures. The mitotic figure count is reported by the pathologist when the biopsy sample is read, although it may have to be specifically requested.
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Page last updated: 11/4/2014