—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
💬 Elizabeth "Liz" Italia: "I never thought much about cats and cancer, although I knew they got it. I imagined it was a higher risk with older cats and that if one of my cats got the diagnosis, it would be the end.
Treating cancer in cats wasn't something I could ever see myself doing. In early 2018, I was about to get schooled, and my assumptions proved wrong.
One day, I was watching TV and petting Vito, who was 13 at the time. My hand went down the back of his neck. What was that? I pet him again. And again. It was definitely a lump. My heart sunk. He had just been at the vet a month before, plus I pet him all the time – where did this come from and what the heck was it? Something about it just didn’t seem right.
We went back to the vet, and the exam itself wasn’t overly concerning. Using a needle, the vet withdrew some fluid from the lump and said he’d send it out and see what we got.
It was likely a cyst, but regardless, we could either wait and see or take it out. I’m someone who wants anything out that isn’t supposed to be there, so I was pretty determined to do surgery. The vet suggested we wait for the results first and then decide.
The results showed inflammatory cells, but really nothing conclusive. I told him again, I wanted it out, so Vito went in for a dental and lump removal. That day, the vet called, and his tone alone had me concerned, “It was … very, very deep, and intertwined with lots of blood vessels. I doubt I got it all.”
“What do you think it was?” I asked.
“I don’t want to say until we get the biopsy results … but the fact that it was so deep … I don’t know. Let’s just wait and see what the results say. They’re going to take a few days. He’s doing awesome and is his normal sweet self so you can come get him whenever you’re ready.”
After picking up Vito, I did what anyone would do – Googled deep tumors in cats. What I found was something called fibrosarcoma, a type of cancer. I didn’t read a ton about it, but after reading what the tumors were like, it matched exactly what my vet said, so I wasn’t optimistic.
A number of days later, the vet called with the results, “It’s a type of tumor called fibrosarcoma, and it is a type of cancer. I threw the results at the wall and I’m so mad at the universe. Vito doesn’t deserve this. He’s the sweetest cat.”
The vet was expressing exactly what I was feeling. I asked, “What are my options?”
“You can consult with a veterinary oncologist, and then they can tell you what can be done. We don’t treat cancer here. You can also choose to just love him and monitor him, and not do anything else. It’s totally up to you.”
I asked, “What happens if I don’t treat it?”
“It will grow back, and these tumors keep growing, so he eventually won’t be able to lift his head to eat.”
That doesn’t work, I told myself. Then I asked, “Is it crazy to try to get a consultation on a 13-year-old cat?”
“No, it’s not crazy at all. Vito is otherwise healthy,” he explained, “If one cat is a candidate for treatment, I’d say it’s him.”
When I got home, I cried and held Vito, fully expecting that there wouldn’t be much we could do, but I decided the consultation was worth it to at least get a prognosis.
When I showed up for the consultation, I had prepared myself for the worst. Once I was called back, I let Vito out of the carrier and he started exploring the room. The oncologist came in, introduced herself and sat with me on the floor so we could hang with Vito.
She looked at me and said, “His cancer is really treatable.”
She went on to explain that fibrosarcomas tend not to metastasize, although they can. They usually stick to themselves. As my vet had said, she agreed it would grow back. She also explained what caused them: vaccines.
No one is sure why, but in some cats, vaccines cause a heightened immune response, which results in growths. It was likely one of Vito’s early vaccines was the culprit. How do we know this? Because it used to be common practice to give vaccines on the back of the neck, but it was switched to the leg area for this reason:
It’s easier to amputate a leg than remove a tumor from the back of the neck. The best guess is that some cats are genetically predisposed to these types of growths, and those genetics could be tied to their immune system.
What were the next steps?
A vet surgeon would need to go in and remove any leftover pieces of the tumor. She would then take margins, to make sure any cancerous cells still hanging out were removed. After that, Vito would have five rounds of chemo. If there were no signs of cancer after everything, he would be in remission.
Chemo on a cat?
I was surprised to learn that cats handle chemo extremely well, usually with minimal or no side effects. It is nothing like a person going through chemo or even a dog (who still handles it better than a human but not as well as a cat).
Also, no more vaccines for him, ever again. Cats that grow these tumors are at high risk of getting them again. Although I was slightly concerned, the oncologist assured me that after a lifetime of vaccines, plus the fact that he was an indoor cat, he was as protected as he was ever going to be.
What was the prognosis?
Without any other health issues, there was no reason to think he couldn’t live up to another 4 or 5 years (and this was more tied to his age, not his diagnosis).
Friends and coworkers encouraged me to do a GoFundMe, and I eventually relented. I was usually the one who arranged collections for people at work, so it was very odd doing it for myself. People wanted to help, and I was very appreciative.
Surgery & Chemo
I’m not going to lie – my heart was in my throat all day while Vito was in surgery. Mostly because I was worried they wouldn’t have enough space to get margins. When I got the call that he did great and margins were taken, I exhaled again. I wanted to see him so badly, but had to wait to get him until the following day to pick him up.
The back of Vito’s neck was so stitched up, I felt bad for him, but he was on a lot of meds and was so happy to be home. I had bought two dog tanks for him to wear to prevent him from messing with the incision and stitches. Thankfully, he was completely disinterested in the incision and looked adorable in his tank tops. I spent the entire weekend just snuggling him and being so happy all the bad stuff was out.
The biopsy results blew me away – no signs of cancer. That meant that the original vet, who didn’t think he got it all, in fact did get it all. There’s always a risk there is a cell deep down somewhere, but more than likely, we were in good shape.
Soon after, Vito started his chemo. These sessions involved an X-ray to make sure his lungs were clear (sometimes cancer goes to the lungs and if it does, you have limited options) and bloodwork. Then they’d administer the chemo, and bring him out when he was done.
He quickly won over the oncology nursing staff with his kind demeanor and dapper bow ties. They had given me anti-nausea meds, which he didn’t need until after the third round of chemo. Other than an upset stomach and a little lethargy, rounds four and five went smoothly.
Vito received a bandana when he graduated from treatment. His next visit showed perfect X-rays and bloodwork, so he was considered cleared. Once he hit a year mark, he was labeled in remission.
What I Learned
This experience taught me a lot. I learned there are veterinary specialists, and they are incredibly knowledgeable. Just like in human medicine, these vets know all about their field and continuously go to conferences and classes to stay up to date on treatments.
I learned all about fibrosarcoma, which was something I hadn’t known about before. It doesn’t change my opinion on vaccines overall; however, if my cats have been vaccinated for over a decade (by me, so I know it’s been consistently done), I do not want any more vaccines.
They are likely as protected as possible, and I will assume any chance risks (like a rabid bat getting into the house). Should something happen, I will own it.
I learned you can treat cats with cancer, which usually involves surgery and chemo, either injected or given in pill form. Radiation is a very expensive form of cancer treatment, and if Vito needed it, I honestly would not have been able to afford it.
And although there wasn’t one for Vito’s type of cancer, there are clinical trials just like with human medicine, so sometimes pet parents can get involved in those trials and get treatments covered.
Lastly, it was yet another reminder in the resilience of cats. Don Vito took it all in stride, and was such a good boy through it all.
Vito crossed the rainbow bridge 2.5 years after treatment, but not because of fibrosarcoma. I’m so glad I got extra time to enjoy him, as well as share my experience with other cat parents.
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist