You hear it a lot: “We never expected it.” “It came out of nowhere.” “Of anyone I’d expect to get sick, it wouldn’t be _____.”
Whether you’ve had a close, intense brush with cancer or you just know someone who knows someone battling it, you’ve likely heard the shock that often accompanies the diagnosis.
This is no less true when your pet gets diagnosed. You spend too many hours wondering if it was their diet, their environment, a genetic predisposition. When my cat, Mokey, got his cancer diagnosis, I did not escape these moments. I was shocked when his weird little lump came back malignant, and I even got my house tested for radon in response. But that’s the clincher with cancer: No one really knows why it happens. And when it comes to cat cancer, that uncertainty is shrouded in a hundred times the mystery.
Mokey is nearly 16 years old and has been by my side since I found him wandering a crummy hotel parking lot in Oregon. He’s moved with me four times, lived in three states, and has been with me through some of the best and worst moments of my life. Until this year, he hasn’t been sick since the day I got him, and his presence in my life has been as constant as his health. So, when Mokey’s “weird bump he won’t stop picking at” turned out to be a tumor, I was dumbfounded. Surgeries and cancer were instantly overwhelming, especially when I thought about his age.
Mokey has always been an overgroomer, an issue we’ve seen many doctors and behaviorists about, only to realize it’s just something he does and always will do. He loves to groom. So, when I discovered a spot on his belly that he’d licked bare and somehow broken open, I assumed it was, at worst, a cyst. When it didn’t heal, my vet said it would need to be surgically removed and sent in for testing. Within days, we’d discovered it as basal cell carcinoma, a fairly rare diagnosis in cats. The good news was that with basal cell, you can usually get all of the cancer if you get all of the tumor. But Mokey, the sweetest in his best moments and a terror in his worst, never does anything halfway. Two weeks after his surgery, I discovered a new lump, this time not on the surface of his skin but near the site of the previous tumor deeper in his abdomen.
At this point, he was already a month into a miserable time. Even before his surgery, I’d had him in a onesie for two weeks trying to prevent him from irritating the original tumor, then another two weeks in a onesie to allow his incision to heal. He was so, so sad in the onesie, which was designed for cats, but still restrictive, uncomfortable, and prevented him from licking or cleaning himself at all. To find out we had to go through all of it again and that he’d be stuck in his surgery suit for another eight weeks was disheartening. Seeing him depressed and sick made me question if it was all worth it.
After his second surgery, the lab confirmed that the basal cell carcinoma had spread to a nearby lymph node. From my vet’s research, to see basal cell carcinoma spread this way in a cat was incredibly rare, and he recommended we speak to a pet oncologist. It was exactly the news I didn’t want. And, amidst all of this, the state had already been shut down for a few months due to the covid pandemic. We were in a crisis within a crisis.
Despite all of the bad news, I never felt luckier. I live and work in Fort Collins, Colorado, the home to one of the world’s premier veterinary schools, as well as one of the world’s best pet cancer centers. If there was an ideal place to be to handle a rare cancer diagnosis during a global pandemic, it was here. It was literally RIGHT HERE. The serendipity of it all still blows my mind.
Our first appointment at Flint Animal Cancer Center probably looked different from most. For one, I never left the car. I met Mokey’s doctor in a sweltering, mid-summer parking lot. I watched every other pet parent park, call, and wait for a vet tech to come out and retrieve their animal. Everything was weird, compounded by the weirdness of consulting with an animal oncologist from my car. You never think it’ll be you, after all.
Once Mokey had been seen, and his lab results looked over, his oncologist recommended Mokey go through five rounds of intravenous chemotherapy, each with a three-week break in between. So this was how we’d spend our summer and fall. OK.
Mokey’s first chemo appointment came with a steep learning curve. While the chemo infusion itself only took 30 minutes, he’d need to spend nearly the entire day at Flint. I dropped him off in the morning, already partially sedated, and he’d end up getting sedated further, get his blood taken to check kidney levels, and then spend time waiting for his turn in the chemo room. After chemo, he’d be monitored and given time to come out of sedation. When all was said and done, it was late afternoon, and Mokey was over it. Through it all, I don’t think he was the worst cat they’ve seen, but I’m sure he wasn’t a treat to have around, either. How the vet techs handled him without a reinforced steel space suit is still beyond my imagination.
Mokey’s final round of chemo was September 8, 2020, and I’m thrilled to report that his recent ultrasound and x-rays came back without recurrence of the cancer. I’ve learned, however, that you never really know if it’ll come back or not. It’s not like the movies — you don’t get a stamp that says “cancer-free forever” on your file. You remove what you can in surgeries, you treat the presence of microscopic cancer cells through chemotherapy or radiation (or both), and you get scans often to try to see if — or when — it’ll come back.
Today we have clean scans and a few months of normal. Mokey is gaining some weight back, has an appetite again, and seems back to himself, if not just a tad sleepier and slower. We go back to Flint in January to get new scans, and we don’t waste a single moment we get together from here on out.
My advice to pet parents dealing with a new diagnosis: Cherish your pet’s good days, give them the whole can of wet food, let them sleep on the bed. Beyond that, I’d recommend asking every question you have and get familiar with the vet techs at Flint because they deserve actual medals for what they do. Also, check your animal often for new lumps, bumps, and lesions, and be vigilant about watching their food/water intake, as well as noting changes in sleeping habits and behavior. If you’ve got Flint on your side, you’ve got a great chance of coming out on the winning end just like we did.