The Jabbanese Empire: Cancer Cat, Chemotherapy Cat, Happy Cat

At the time of Jabba’s diagnosis, there were several Facebook updates, and nothing on the blog. I’m in a position now to continue the tale of “The Rise and Fall of the Jabbanese Empire.” It has been an emotional rollercoaster for a pet-lover like myself, but it has taken us to a surprisingly mellow place.

When we last left our fluffy little grey hero, he was covered in snot and blood on a daily basis, losing weight, and snorting constantly. Cleaning his face, nose and fur were daily tasks, and he smelled like death. We had tested for everything the vet specialist could think of that didn’t involve a general anaesthetic, but we’d come to that pass: it was time for an MRI (and a possible rhinoscopy).

So I dropped off my cat, gave him a cuddle, and went and sat around in Burwood, twitching and upset. Eventually a friend asked if I wanted to come and keep her company while she walked her puppy at the dog park and, since it was less than fifteen minutes away, and I wasn’t getting anything done in Burwood, I said yes, sure, brilliant. Also – puppy!

Eventually – after hours that felt like an eternity – my phone rang.

Jabba had woken up from his general anaesthetic, bright eyed and bushy-tailed (snotty tailed?), even perkier than most younger cats that don’t have a heart murmur, so the vets were pleased. And surprised. We can confidently say that he doesn’t have a problem with generals.

He needed a couple of hours to recover, so I sat and visited with my friend and her puppy before heading back to collect my fluff elemental.

It wasn’t good news.

They didn’t even get to the rhinoscopy, because as soon as they looked at the MRI, they saw the giant tumour behind his nose. This meant he didn’t spend too much time under, and the bill was a few hundred dollars less, but really, that was the only positive.

Husband and I were pretty devastated, and we still had a few days to wait for the biopsy results which would tell us what treatment options – if any – were appropriate. We cuddled our snotty, stinky cat, and eyeballed our bank account wondering what was going to happen.

The biopsy results came back: feline nasal lymphoma.

Okay, the first two descriptors were pretty obvious, but lymphoma – as aggressive cancers go in cats – was good news. It’s one of the easiest cancers to treat in cats (especially nasal lymphoma). It’s by far the most common cancer; and it doesn’t tend to spread, meaning that Jabba wasn’t likely in pain from it.

The enormous relief I felt upon hearing that last item is indescribable. I felt dizzy with it. I didn’t even know how much it had been weighing on me, thinking that my cat was suffering from his cancer and I didn’t know how much and whether or not it was time for euthanasia and how would we tell anyway since cats are so stoic, and I didn’t want to let him go and I didn’t want to let him suffer either but… not in pain. In fact, probably just cranky about the snot and discomfort and difficulty breathing.

It also turns out that being on steroids helps with lymphoma, and it just so happened that Jabba was already on prednisone. This was to treat his allergy to the felimazole, which was to treat his hyperthyroidism (“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…”). He was also on Norvasc, to treat his blood pressure. Three pills, daily. We were working out a system.

Our lovely specialist vet (who I refer to as Super Vet) gave us our first estimate for chemotherapy – the most intensive and well-studied protocol.

For anyone else doing research, I will share the number, which normally I wouldn’t do, but I was trying to find information on this and I couldn’t.

$7000.

That’s for a really intense protocol, with a cannula and transfusions and sedation and blood work. It has an average two year survival period for feline lymphoma.

That… was not in the realms of possibility for us (not at this time). It also sounded incredibly stressful for Jabba, with constant sedations to allow long-term infusion of chemotherapy drugs. I asked if there were any other options, and there were, but they needed to be costed out.

Super-vet went away, and came back three days later with two more protocols. The major drawback to the two of them is that they were less aggressive, and so presumed to be less effective, but more importantly, there weren’t major studies with good sample sizes to tell us how effective they could be. One protocol – the pills, which we have ended up adopting – had been shown to be effective with intestinal lymphoma, but obviously that behaves differently from nasal lymphoma.

A word, here, on chemotherapy for pets. You can find this information by Googling widely, but the take-home point is this: chemotherapy for pets is not like chemotherapy in humans. Chemotherapy for humans is incredibly intense. We essentially torture humans in the hope of a cure, and we sign up for this, knowing that the potential benefits will hopefully outweigh the costs. We understand that we are suffering in the hopes of survival, or at least an extended lifespan.

You could never explain that to a pet. They would never understand. Their suffering would be horrible and to them would seem endless. It’s an ethical disaster.

Chemotherapy for pets is a vastly reduced regime relative to what humans go through. The dose (relative to size and metabolism) is titchy. The goal is to get them remission, and a couple more years of good quality life with their humans. Because of this reduced goal, a lot of pets are much happier and healthier on chemo than off chemo, because the cancer effects are reduced. You can’t really say that about humans on chemo.

I mention this because when you tell people you’ve got a pet on chemotherapy, they look at you like you’re a little bit mad – essentially, why are you torturing your already suffering animal? And that’s a fair response, and speaks well to their humanity and compassion. It’s just inaccurate in this case.

So we went with the pills, which works out to something much more affordable for us, and much less stressful to administer. They have to be kept in the fridge, and as they are cytotoxic, handled with gloves, but Jabba is used to being given pills so adding one more every two days (every three now, anyway) is not the end of the world. In fact, as he is slowly learning that after I give him his evening medications, he gets a giant pile of cat treats, he is getting increasingly mellow about the process.

I cannot convince him to just eat the pills. I have to shove them down his throat. He tolerates this better than he once did.

So, how has this worked out for wee Jabba?

I was actually away in Perth for work when the pills came in, so Husband began the process of administering the cytotoxic medication. Apparently, for the first few days Jabba threw up a few times and didn’t eat much, which was expected, and that settled.

After about a week and a half, Husband reported no change, and sounded worried.

Getting closer to two weeks – not far from when I was due to go home – he said “He… definitely seemed less snotty today. But I might be imagining it.”

Two days later:

“He is definitely looking better.”

Then I got home, and saw the improvement with my own eyes. I’d left for Perth with a mucous-faced, snotty, stinky, bony, lethargic cat, and come home to a clean, fluffy, talkative, but still bony, cat. Apparently while I was away, he’d been eating less. He had even been refusing his beloved treats. Husband had asked Super-vet about this, and she suggested it was separation anxiety.

This is not surprising. Jabba is an extremely needy cat, and he’s always been very much my cat. I’m the one who spent some time wooing him, luring him, petting him, and earning his affections at my mother-in-law’s house, and he pretty much latched onto me like a limpet.

I got home and he started scarfing food and treats like food was about to be banned.

The improvement continues. His fur is growing back. He’s putting on weight. We’ve taken to feeding him full fat Greek yoghurt from our breakfast stash in an effort to fatten him up, which means we’ve created a monster that constantly demands to partake of my breakfast. He sits at my study door and sings the song of his people until I let him in to lick the bowl clean. The vet nurse fully endorsed the yoghurt, adding that the cultures would probably do him some good while he was on chemo as well.

I am so, so, so glad we did this. I’m so glad we didn’t decide that chemotherapy was a bad idea, and that we didn’t listen to people who were saying “but he’s thirteen! Why put him through that?” as it turns out we really haven’t put him through that much and he is so much happier now. To anyone who is not sure about chemotherapy for their cat, well, it will depend on what type of cancer and what your vet recommends, but – if you can afford it (and vet care is really expensive, there is no judgement for not being able to afford it) – I highly recommend it.

I don’t know how long this will last. I don’t know what remission will look like, or when we will finally have to say goodbye to my little grey cat and let him return to the Elemental Plane of Fluff, but in the meantime, he is back to his old snuggly, purry, fluffy self.

He is so much happier on his poison pills.

 

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