Cancer in Cats: A Cat Mom’s Story
By Cheryl Burns
When your life path hasn’t involved children, Mother’s Day can feel like a reminder of something you didn’t do. But, while I know there’s an ineffable difference, I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as much like a mom as I did the day the veterinarian said “cancer.” This is my story; Smoky Tiggs Burns’s story. I’m not an expert, but I’m sharing these words with the hope that they help at least one pet parent feel less alone. Because, as I always knew but experiencing feline cancer confirmed, pets ARE family.
Smoky was around 12 years old and had been with us for seven years when my husband noticed “bumps” on her neck. Although he was pretty sure they were new, he grabbed our second cat – we jokingly thanked her for being our “control group kitty” – to confirm it wasn’t normal. We got her to the vet that day. The bumps were swollen lymph nodes. The vet looked grim; while she needed to run some tests, it looked very much like lymphoma. They drained Smoky’s lungs, which were filled with fluid, and sent blood out for testing. Even before the results came back, the vet told us that Smoky wouldn’t have lasted the week if my husband hadn’t noticed the swelling and acted quickly.
The first test confirmed cancer. The second classified it as large T-cell lymphoma. The vet was blunt, which we probably needed: it was the result they always hoped they wouldn’t get. It was a Thursday when we contacted a feline oncologist, and we felt lucky to get an appointment the following Wednesday. The gravity of the situation sunk in when our regular vet asked, “Can you get her in sooner?” We started Smoky on steroids and had her lungs cleared once more before we dropped her off at the oncologist’s emergency room on Monday to be seen whenever they could manage.
It was 2021, and COVID protocols were firmly in place. When they called us back in, my husband and I were taken to a comfortable, private waiting room (a dog mom friend once said you knew it was bad news when you’re put in a room with a couch and comfy chairs) where we met the oncologist via speakerphone. She explained – in clear but never unkind terms – that they could get a sizeable percentage of cats with this diagnosis into remission, but it always came back fairly quickly. A few cats got a second remission; a third was extraordinarily rare. Her knowledge astounded and comforted me. She reviewed a detailed plan with several lines of treatment and plans in case one drug didn’t seem to work. She shared some good news too: this type of cancer wasn’t particularly painful (according to observation of feline patients and feedback from people with a similar condition), and cats didn’t suffer from the terrible side effects that people endure with chemotherapy. We would try everything. When we pushed, she said we were looking at four to six months – if we were lucky. They started treatment that day.
For Smoky, treatment meant regular vet visits that increased in frequency from every three weeks to every week, plus oral steroids. (Pro Tip: the oncologist shared another patient’s brilliant trick of putting a little butter on a pill and sticking it in the freezer for a short moment to harden. Smoky was never easy to pill, but the butter helped!). Smoky was tired. She retreated a bit, especially immediately after a treatment, and she didn’t eat much, but she was herself. We watched her as any parent would, and never saw pain cross her face. The oncologist coordinated with another vet to administer some of the treatments, which made the logistics much easier. I remember sitting with the other vet while he called the oncologist after a disappointing test result. Aside from being amazed that an in-demand oncologist took an unplanned call to help us decide to change course, I felt grateful because I saw that they both cared about their patients. Still, at that appointment like almost every trip to either doctor – even when Smoky achieved a temporary remission – the vets reminded us that the cancer would win.
And it did. We were sick ourselves the day Smoky started to squat outside the litter box, staring right at us as she did. It wasn’t like her (she never actually peed … our prim and proper girl till the end). We took her in. They told us what we knew. While they were getting her ready – and we were getting ourselves ready – she passed on her own. They brought her to us. We held her. We cried. And we felt the loss of our sweet grey girl.
Feline cancer can be treated. Many times the vets win the battle. Not all stories end as ours did. Each type of cancer and each treatment is unique. A fellow cat mom shared that after getting radioactive iodine for a thyroid tumor, her rescue Josephine couldn’t sleep with her human for a couple of weeks and she did lose her “lion’s mane,” but she recently passed her three-month follow-up with flying colors! I’ve heard of cats that experienced cancer as a chronic illness and lived with it for years.
In our case, despite losing the battle, we got five months — the time we needed to be ready (or as ready as one can be) to say goodbye.
A few resources that you might find helpful if your cat’s vet says cancer:
“Home Care for the Cancer Patient,” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine;
“Cats and Cancer,” The Conscious Cat; and
“Lymphoma in Cats,” VCA Animal Hospitals.
Cheryl Burns is a Legal Editor who divides her time between Northern Virginia and Central Pennsylvania. She’s a proud King Street Cats volunteer. Some 20 months later, she still sometimes says that two cats kindly allow her and her husband to share their home.