The decision as to whether to begin chemotherapy with a cat is a huge one and can be very overwhelming. Many questions can arise, such as whether the cat will suffer during it, how much it costs, the time commitment for the caregiver, and others. In this blog, I will describe our experiences with deciding on chemotherapy for our cats.
Everyone knows that I am an avid animal lover and caretaker. I will do whatever I need to do to take care of our cats. However, when our cat Marmalade first got diagnosed with cancer in January 2018, I wondered if chemotherapy really was a good decision for him. Will he suffer? How much will it cost? What will it entail? And of course… how hard will it be on me to take care of a cat who has cancer?
About a week after Marmalade’s diagnosis, we sat down with our Oncologist to talk about treatment options. During our discussion, I expressed my concerns about how much Marmalade would suffer if he went through chemotherapy. He explained to us that chemotherapy is in pets is not used not to try to eradicate cancer like it is with humans. It is used instead to slow down the progression of the disease and to improve the quality of life of the animal. Chemo is usually done until either a pet’s cancer begins to grow again or until it no longer improves the quality of life. Doses are not, then, high enough to try to bring out full remission like they are in humans.
For Marmalade’s lymphoma (large cell lymphoma) there were two main chemotherapy options. One was a pill that was once a week for a month at the vet hospital and then once a month (4-6 weeks). The other was an injection that started out again at once a week and then moved to every other week after a while. The injection had a higher success rate but was more expensive. The other options for Marmalade were to do corticosteroids only or to let his cancer run its course, but the vet let us know that without chemotherapy there was a good chance that his cancer would spread aggressively, which would result in further complications and more suffering for Marmalade.
When I looked at these options, I thought about a few things. Cost, of course, was one of my concerns. The Oncology vet was very good about going over this with us. The injection cost quite a bit more than the pill, as did the tests that went with it. When a cat undergoes chemo like this, they must be tested to make sure that the dose is not affecting their immune system too greatly. I also worried about the toll that it would take on Marmalade to be at the vet as often as every other week over a period of months or years. Due to these concerns, and because we didn’t want Marmalade to develop complications from spreading lymphoma, David and I decided on the pill form of chemotherapy to be given at the vet every 4-6 weeks.
Overall we were happy with our decision. Marmalade’s symptoms improved within a couple of weeks of starting chemo. He started to eat again, his energy improved, and he was happier. He did have problems eating for a few days after he received his pill, but with additional anti-nausea and appetite stimulants, he did make it through these periods. He responded to chemo for about five months, and once he stopped having a favorable response we stopped the chemo and let him have a good last few weeks. He passed away this past June 2018.
Patrick’s symptoms have also improved considerably since starting chemotherapy. During the six months before his diagnosis, Patrick was frequently getting constipated, getting bladder infections, and vomiting. He was diagnosed with bladder cystitis and were told that if his bladder infections continue that he may need surgery. His bladder cystitis seemed to flare in tandem with his constipation issues.
It seemed as though we were in and out of the vet constantly during this period of time. We had frequent trips to the emergency vet and were sometimes up all night at the vet with him. Our lives were very stressful as we were taking care of Marmalade at the same time. Eventually, our veterinarians began to think that something more serious may be going on with Patrick and with his brother Lucifer, who was showing the same symptoms and had started to lose weight.
We took both cats to the speciality clinic that Marmalade had gone to in order to get some idea as to what was going on with Patrick and Lucifer. The veterinarian we saw suspected either Inflammatory Bowel Disease or small cell lymphoma for both of them. Biopsies were scheduled for both cats.
In August, Lucifer experienced a medical emergency when his cecum (part of his large intestine) burst during a diagnostic colonoscopy. It was successfully removed and Lucy’s large intestine was sewn back together. After some testing, it was found that Lucy had small cell intestinal lymphoma but it was only found in the removed cecum. He also was diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Lucy is now cancer free but there is still a chance that it will return.
Patrick had biopsies done in September and was diagnosed with intermediate cell intestinal lymphoma. When we met with the vet we were told that there was a pill form of chemotherapy that we can give him at home for this type of lymphoma. It isn’t as strong as the chemotherapy that Marmalade went through, but because intermediate cell lymphoma is not as aggressive or serious as large cell lymphoma, it was the choice that we made for Patrick. He gets his chemotherapy dose every other week at home.
Although Patrick struggles with the side effects of chemotherapy, his overall health is much better now that he has started chemotherapy and is on a corticosteroid. Lucy is also on a corticosteroid, and neither cat has had a bladder infection for months. They also have not had any bouts of constipation since treatment began for both. We are not having constant health emergencies with them anymore and only have about one vet visit a month. I am pleasantly surprised at how much chemo and corticosteroids have helped both their stomach symptoms and their bladder cystitis as well. It seems as though their intestinal symptoms can influence inflammation in the rest of their body, including their bladder. They are both much happier now that they are on treatment, and Patrick’s cancer is not progressing. I am much happier too because I am not at the vet constantly and can spend more time on self-care. I am glad that these meds are improving everyone’s quality of life, plus our vet expenses are actually lower now that the cats are being treated correctly for their health conditions.
Deciding on whether or not to give your pet chemotherapy is a very tough decision. For me, I am glad that we decided to treat with chemotherapy because it has given us more quality time with our pets and improved and extended their lives. I realize that the effects of it will not last forever, but personally, I want to give my pets every chance that they have to live long, happy lives. If you have a decision like this to make I recommended listening closely and asking questions when talking to your vet, doing your own research, and finding out which decision is not just right for your pet but also for you and your family.