Prenote: This is my personal story and experience with my cat's cancer. Info discussed may not apply to your pet. Please seek the advice of a trusted veterinarian when caring for your pet. If I can prevent or help even one pet suffer less or not at all from cancer, then this page has done its job.
FACT: "Cancer is the #1 disease-related cause of death for dogs and cats... a fact that's known by only 20% of pet parents." - BlueBuffalo PetCancerAwareness.org
Hi. I was one of the 80%.
In September 2013 my beloved twelve year-old tuxedo cat Nelly was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma, aka liver cancer. This diagnosis came as a huge shock to my husband and I. On the surface Nelly seemed perfectly fine. Happy. Healthy. Thriving. Cats hide things very well. But looking back over the past six months, there were some signs I think missed, simply because I was completely and devastatingly ignorant to the topic of "pet cancer." And even though there is no "cure" for cancer in pets and people -- early detection may help you spend more healthy, happy days with your pet.
Wait, Pets Often Get Cancer? Really?
Nelly's Story. We had been in and out of the vet a few times the months leading up to Nelly's diagnosis. But it wasn't until one vet noticed a spike in Nelly's liver blood test that a needle biopsy was done to check for cancer. Even as we left that vet visit with a box of Denamarin in our hands and test results to wait for, I never dreamed in my wildest nightmares that cancer was the culprit.
Something was up. Something was wrong. But Nelly would be fine. She was always fine. But that grey September morning when my husband texted me after talking to the vet, "They want to discuss chemotherapy." I knew it was cancer. I had never uttered that word, cancer, in a way that made me sick to my stomach like I did that day. As it hit me, I curled up on the floor and started sobbing.
Cancer. One word changes everything.
With that one word as Nelly's diagnosis I felt like I had slipped into a deep pool of black ocean, shark fins racing in the distance towards me. I had two choices: sit still, tread water, feel paralyzed and be swallowed whole without putting up a fight. No struggle. Or, start swimming. Into the dark unknown waters. Faster than ever. For Nelly, I had no choice but to suck in some breath, close my eyes and start swimming.
Nelly's Cancer. Now if you research Nelly's particular type of cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, you will find that it is quite rare in cats. And aggressive. And terminal. However if you research cancer in pets in general, you will find that it is not rare at all. In fact:
* Cancer is the number one natural cause of death in older pets.
* Cancer accounts for nearly 50% of all disease-related pet deaths each year.
Nelly's type of cancer, liver cancer, is fast moving and aggressive, with very few options for treatment. Chemotherapy, which is (basically) considered the go-to treatment in both humans and pets, does not prove to be effective at fighting liver cancer. (But again, every patient is different, your vet oncologist should discuss treatment options.)
The hard reality: September 26th, Nelly's diagnosis date, her vet emailed us the dreary prognosis and estimated that she had 2-3 months to live.
Liver cancer is usually best treated with surgery since the liver is a unique organ and regenerates itself quite well. However if the tumor is in an odd position or if the cancer has spread, aka metastisis has occurred, surgery is usually ruled out. In Nelly's case, the tumor was oddly wrapped around her gull bladder making it nearly impossible to remove. Our vets said cats cannot survive without a gull bladder, unlike people. But even if surgery was a viable option with the given tumor, for Nelly it was too late, the cancer had spread to both her lungs and lymph nodes. This metastisis was found and monitored via X-rays, a CT scan and ultrasound. A heartbreaking part of all this is watching your pet be poked and prodded at the vet. But in the diagnosis phase, if you want more answers, there is no way around it.
So, where are we now? Nelly was losing weight, her tired body was riddled with tumors and she was having some serious acid reflux and vomiting problems, most likely caused by her gull bladder-attached liver tumor. Terminal, untreatable cancer? I cover my ears, and let denial sink in. All I wanted to do was SOMETHING. I want to help. Lets fix this. Or at least make it better. But we had zero treatment options. I was starting to understand first hand what the term "terminal untreatable cancer" meant.
How Did This Happen? These thoughts trampled through my brain nonstop once Nelly was diagnosed, "What did I do wrong? How could I have stopped this? How did this happen so fast?" But the truth is, I did nothing wrong. Nelly had a great life going for her! Top of the line wet food. Treats. Exercise. Loads of love. Her diabetes were well managed. And plenty of vet visits. And since Nelly is diabetic she goes in and out of the vet quite frequently. We did everything right with Nelly. But I still cannot help thinking about what would have happened if we had caught this earlier.
But really, liver tumors like Nelly's are quite devastating because they are aggressive and untreatable, but for other types of cancer, early detection is key - in humans and animals. EARLY DETECTION may not mean a cure or even remission, but it may lead to more healthy and happy time with your pet.
But early detection in cats is not easy. Cats hide illness very well. Even though Nelly had been seen by many vets this past year, none of them spotted the cancer brewing. But in hindsight, I personally think that I DID notice some signs in Nelly early on. Signs only an owner may spot. But I never knew the signs were cancer symptoms.
If I had known the signs and symptoms of pet cancer I could have been more aggressive in communicating the changes to the vets.
Looking back, Nelly had these symptoms in the 3-6 months leading up to her diagnosis. (We went to the vet for each symptom, but cancer didn't come up until a blood test revealed a liver abnormality.)
* Sores that do not heal - she had hair loss patches on the bottom of her foot that no one could explain.
* Loss of appetite - she wasn't eating as much but I thought she was just in a picky phase.
* Loss of stamina - slightly, but nothing drastic, was it just normal aging?
* Loss of weight - about a pound, but again I thought this was normal aging muscle mass loss..
The big one was those darn sores on the bottom of her feet. They made no sense. Upon looking at cancer signs, "sores that do not heal" is a prime one. Hindsight is crystal clear.
The bottom line and my message to you: Educate yourself on pet cancer. Click on some of resources below and get more info to arm yourself with in case you or a friend ever needs it. Share this post with a pet-owner friend too.
I'm a Statistic. I was part of that 80%. When I adopted Nelly, a tiny 6 week-old kitten, in a shelter in Los Angeles in October 2001 I had NO CLUE about pet cancer. I was given some basic instructions: I was told to feed her the "good" food, mostly wet, play with her often, keep her litterbox clean and above all, love her with all my heart as I gave her a forever home. I did all those things.
But cancer, no clue. Clueless. Cats get that once in a while, yes? And those pets are usually not taken well care of yes? WRONG.
So I want to shout from the rooftops to all you pet owners out there: Watch for the warning signs of cancer and if you have any sort of instinct or see signs of cancer, especially in an older pet, talk to you vet and if you have the funds to do so, get X-rays and blood tests and be persistent in making sure your vet checks for cancer.
But on the flip side of things, sometimes cancer moves so fast and is SO sneaky that there is nothing you can do to prevent or stop it. And that is the horror of cancer. As one vet said, "It is cancer. You don't know why it does what it does or what it will do next."
The Big Picture: Cancer. It may sound silly but I always go back to Steve Jobs. He was one of the most powerful and wealthy and intelligent humans on this planet and he got cancer and died from it. He died long before "old age." Long before he was finished with his plans here in this life. If Steve Jobs cannot win the cancer battle, what chance do any of us have? Depressing, yes. But in an odd way it makes me feel better. Not better really, but it helps me let go. Yes, Steve and Nelly both reacted to cancer by FIGHTING. But geez it is cancer. No cure, remember? If the fight fails, what next?
The letting go. What now?
The answer is always -> love. And that is what I wanted with Nelly. To love her. Sunbeams and tuna fish and long soft strokes along her silky black fur.
At our last X-ray checkup appointment, as I sobbed, red eyed, thick beads of salty tears streaming down my hot cheeks, as Nelly sat exhausted in the kitty scale container, I asked the vet, "What do I do now? I just don't know what to do?"
The doctor looked at me with sad eyes, motioning to the vet tech for a box of tissues, "Just love her. Just love her."
At that moment I felt angry at that response. I was thinking, "What? Just give up? Just give up on her and stop fighting?!" But now I see that no matter what treatment option you choose, that advice is THE BEST ADVICE. Love. Love. Love.
Love is all anyone who is dying wants. Needs. Take all that energy you want to "fight" the cancer with and just love the cancer. That little furry body, riddled with evil growing cancer tumors would be loved by me with all my heart. I loved Nelly's sweet kitty soul. Her body may have been broken, but her soul was always present.
Love cannot heal cancer, but it sure does heal a broken spirit.
Today. Writing this, today is around day 46 of living with the knowledge that Nelly is dying of cancer. Everyday is heartbreaking. I have never wept so much in my life. Or cried like this. Deep, gut-wrenching sobs that bellow from deep within my chest. I feel helpless, angry and sad.
Each day I must tend to Nelly's diabetes, feed her, clean up her fur, cuddle her as much as possible, watch her and listen for any problems, monitor her potty habits and try to take care of myself too. It is not easy. But she has many more good days than bad right now and is still "normal Nelly" for little while each day. She is tired but still a happy girl. I cherish every single second with this creature, my best friend of twelve years.
Every second she is rolling in her sunbeam or rolling on her back and purring or having an overall "good day" I am flooded with bittersweet happiness.
This experience has forever changed my core. Though I consider myself to be someone with a broad spectrum of empathy and experience to life's joys and tragedies, THIS experience has changed me the most. It alters the way I look at the world, our short and tender, fragile and magical lives and also that frightening yet ever present mystery of death.
Last weekend a friend said to me, "The only guarantee in life is death!" He said it with such gusto. Oh man, is he right? That feels like such a cynical way to look at life. Or is it kind of freeing? As I played his voice over and over in my head on a walk down the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, I looked around at all the after-work pedestrians hurrying to catch the bus, run into stores or hurry to their cars. Yup, all of us will be dead one day. Reality check. I guess we should all just chill out, stop worrying, step back, be kind to ourselves and others, take care of ourselves and our loved ones and to quote my favorite movie, Titanic, "Make each day count." Especially each healthy day.
Full circle. I do believe that the bonds we form with these special creatures, "pets," live on forever. I do not think my life with Nelly ends with death.
Will I Adopt Pets in the Future? I'm giving my soul a long break to mourn, but as an animal lover I can only hope to heal enough to adopt again. I am confidant I will because I have learned this: you cannot be afraid to love even if you know your heart will be broken in the end. That time of being in love outweighs a hundred years of sadness.
Read my tribute post to Nelly the kitty 2001 - 2013 RIP
Resources & Links:
- Pet Cancer Facts
- Pet Cancer Signs
- Hepatocellular Carcinoma - PetMD
VCS - Vet Cancer Society
Little Big Cat - Cancer Treatment and Prvention
Nate the cat's success story - Natural Cat Care Blog
Winn Feline Health Blog
Healthy Pets - Mercola - Pet Therapy for Cancer Prevention
"Home Care for the Cancer Patient" Cornell Feline Health Center
Cancer Blogs - Pet Journeys:
* Nelly - My post tribute to Nelly the cat - love, light, gratitude and loss
My name is Leo
My Depressing Cat Blog
The Holistic Vet - Marc Bittan - los angeles
Vet Cancer Group - los angeles
Dr May - the vegan vet - los angeles
Some advice from Dr Gerry Post
Disclaimer: This website/blogpost is not intended to replace professional consultation, diagnosis, or treatment by a licensed veterinarian. If your pet requires health advice, contact your veterinarian promptly. This post is based on my own personal experiences and reflections. Always seek the advice of a vet when caring for your pet.