When Your Cat has Cancer – Phoebe’s Story Part 1

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I had wanted this to be a fun blog but inevitably some experiences need to be shared so other people can get the help and support they need. Feel free to comment if you have any advice for any pet owners out there.

My very special thanks in this blog goes to Beech House Veterinary Surgery, Radcliffe, Manchester http://www.beechhousevetsradcliffe.co.uk/ and the Small Animal Teaching Hospital, University of Liverpool, Neston https://www.liv.ac.uk/sath/

Cancer rears its ugly head every day but for some reason it never occurred to me that my pets could fall victim.  After all Phoebe never smoked, drunk or had a stressful job.  We took all the precautions of vaccinations and worming and did the very best for our pets, as you do and STILL…..

Phoebe’s cancer wasn’t very obvious to spot.  All cats are sick from time to time and cleaning up vomit is just part and parcel of cat and dog care.  My concerns came when she was throwing up a little too often, so after a vet visit we tried putting her on a sensitive diet which didn’t seem to make any difference.  There didn’t seem to be a pattern to her vomiting – she may be sick free for a day and then throw up twice the next, generally not long after eating.  She lost some weight too, but it wasn’t a major concern as she was a little on the heavy side.  It was when she brought up some pink froth one morning with some red flecks in it, that we took her in for further investigation.

Bart and Phoebe age 1. Phoebe is on the left.
Bart and Phoebe age 1. Phoebe is on the left.

That was January 2013.  Phoebe had some blood tests to eliminate the causes of her vomiting which came back negative, and then a pancreatitis test.  That also came back negative.  Each time, we were relieved at the result but it didn’t solve the vomiting mystery.

Meanwhile we had a major task of getting various medications down Phoebe to try to control the vomiting.  Her brother, Bart is wonderful with tablets but Phoebe knew all the tricks in the book after many failed worming attempts.  My heart sank when I was given some huge white Antepsin tablets (half a tablet 3 times a day) along with some Zantac syrup.  I ended up crushing them and mixing them with something sticky so I could smear it into her mouth.  This was the beginning of a long term medication programme, so after experimenting with a few cat friendly substances, I overcame Phoebe’s tablet aversions.  I couldn’t say the same for the Zantac syrup though.  Zantac is minty, which isn’t popular with cats, and application with a syringe just made it worse, with me missing my target half the time.  Phoebe would froth at the mouth after being given Zantac and run off like a rabid wildcat! (If you think you’ve heard of Zantac before, its often used to treat heartburn and stomach ulcers).

So, the tests didn’t come up with anything.  We booked her in for an ultrasound scan for the 22nd January.  This was the start of the big vet fees as it would involve a general anaesthetic to keep her still so clear images can be taken.  It was during this scan when the vets found a mass in her stomach.  Even so, the mass needed to be investigated.  We were offered an endoscopy (tube down the throat.  At the time this could only be offered at another surgery) or abdominal surgery.  It was one of those decisions where we had to go away and think about it.

Cost is always a difficult deciding factor when it comes to making decisions about our pets’ welfare.  I have now learnt the hard way and advise everyone with cats, dogs, etc to insure your pet because you never know if they may need long term treatment or major surgery.  My cats are indoor cats so I always considered them to be low risk from accidents and theft, but cancer is cruel and doesn’t discriminate.  And I guess kidney disease and urinary tract disease can crop up any time too, amongst other feline problems.  As my cats weren’t insured I would have to foot Phoebe’s bill myself.  Needless to say, I got Bart insured shortly after.

Steve and I decided after some soul searching, to send Phoebe in for abdominal surgery.  At the time Phoebe, had just turned 8, not particulatly old for a cat, and was strong and healthy, so I figured she could cope with the operation – and hopefully get cured!  The benefit of having the surgery was that if anything needed removing, it could be done at the same time, and if not, biopsies could be taken.  With all surgery, there is always a risk and therefore not a decision to be taken lightly.  I may not have taken that risk if Phoebe was elderly, for example.  But there was a good chance of her coming through and getting the answers to her illness so we took it.

So 24 January 2013, we dropped Phoebe off again in the morning.  By 2pm she had had the op and was coming round.  There appeared to be what looked like an ulcer and biopsies were taken for tests.  Even at this point we weren’t too alarmed, but as she had to stay overnight, we missed her and so did Bart.

The next day it was snowing.  We went to collect Phoebe in the evening.  Phoebe was glad to be back home after surgery.  She had a big plaster on her shaved belly and we were given a surgical collar for her to wear in case she picked at her wound.  She was advised to be kept where she couldn’t leap around, so we restricted her to our bedroom and moved her food and water there, and the litter tray in the ensuite.  I think she enjoyed having her private quarters and was a fabulous patient.  She loved having her food brought upstairs to her, and as she had been through a lot already, she was treated to poached chicken breast!

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The next few days was a waiting game as we waited for the tests to come back from the biopsies.  We had a cocktail of medications to give Phoebe in the meantime; Buprecare syringe 2x daily, half Antiseptin tablet 3x daily, Zantac 0.4mls 2x daily and quarter of a metrinidazole tablet daily.  The latter was particularly hated by Phoebe, along with the Zantac.  The kitchen worktop had a pestle and mortar permanently residing on the top, with various syringes alongside.  That pestle and mortar was a godsend for crushing tablets and I recommend getting one of these if you have a pet on long term medication.

3 days after her op, we took her in for a checkup with Shaun, who owns Beech House surgery.  Off came her belly plaster to reveal a very neat stitching job down the centre of her belly (the stitches were internal).  Phoebe never really bothered with her wound, so luckily I never used the surgical collar.  I was glad about that, as she doesn’t even wear a normal collar.

Apart from the meds she was having, Phoebe continued with a normal life.  She was allowed out of her recovery quarters and ate well and milked the fact that no-one was going to tell her off for anything!

Demonstrating her favourite 'ball' position.
Demonstrating her favourite ‘ball’ position.

Unf ortunately, Rachel, the vet who performed the op, phoned us on the 1st February and told us it was cancer.

Steve took the phone call.  We were numb and scared for our little cat, whom we shared 8 years with and had hoped for more.

Phoebe had a checkup that day at the vet.  Rachel had rung ahead of the appointment so we could discuss options (and probably to give us time to compose ourselves).  Not that I was very composed in that treatment room.  Phoebe had a lymphoma on her abdominal wall and the prognosis was poor.  Steve held it together but I knew it was breaking him as Phoebe was his secret favourite.

Rachel offered us some options, but the one that stood out for me was a referral to Liverpool University Small Animal Teaching Hospital.  They had an Oncology  Department specifically for cancer patients.  She warned us that it would cost, and we weren’t insured.  The initial consultation would probably cost over £1000, but at that point I didn’t care.  I would have taken any option to save my little cat and I didn’t want to waste any more time.

I would like to point out that we don’t have amazingly well paid jobs!  My decision to pay for Phoebe’s treatment (of which there’s no guarantee of a happy outcome) was fuelled by my commitment to do my very best for her as she is my responsibility – the unwritten promise we make (or should make) whenever we take on a new pet.  We would have to cut costs in other areas of our lives, but I felt quite matter of fact about this.  I’m sure plenty of pet owners would agree with my decision if faced with this same misfortune, and luckily Steve and I both work full time.  I feel for anyone faced with the same situation who would not be able to afford treatment.  So once again, I strongly recommend having your pet insured, and if you never have to make a claim, then you can call yourself lucky!

Rachel did not waste any time in referring Phoebe.  On Monday 4th February she confirmed she was making contact with the Small Animal Teaching Hospital (SATH) in Liverpool.  Later on we got a call from the hospital itself offering us an appointment for the next morning at 9am!  I was amazed and thankful for the quick response.  Our instructions was to starve Phoebe from 8pm as she would need an anaesthetic for another ultrasound scan amongst other examinations.  We were hopeful and anxious for the next stage of her diagnosis and treatment and really weren’t sure what to expect.  Phoebe on the other hand, didn’t know what the fuss was about and just enjoyed the extra attention she was receiving…

We fed Phoebe wherever she wanted!
We fed Phoebe wherever she wanted!

During this traumatic time for us, its a comfort to know that Phoebe wasn’t suffering and didn’t understand the concept of cancer.  All the emotional stress was on us, and if anyone is having a rough time, I cannot express enough how invaluable support from your friends/colleagues can be.  The subject of ill and deceased pets can be met with unsympathetic comments from people who don’t understand, so it’s common not to say anything and bottle up feelings.  This is particularly true in the workplace and there have been the odd time I’ve had to lie to get the time off to take animals to the vet, and would still advise anyone to do the same!  However, at the time of Phoebe’s illness I was particularly blessed with some great colleagues who got me through this and made me smile when I was down.  If you can surround yourself with people who can lift and support you, it can really help to ease the worry.

This blog is being split into different parts as its a story spanning 3 years!  Please visit again for the next part which involves chemotherapy, more ultrasound scans – and a lot of trips to the Wirral.