Shaka is my sweet but shy 14-year-old Somali cat. He has had a sensitive stomach since he was young, so I learned to live with his vomiting.

His vomiting was actually regurgitation. He spit up barely digested food within 30 minutes of eating. During his life he has medical workups and been tried on different treatments and special diets, but he still vomits. He was always active, maintained his weight and ate well.

In June 2009, I noticed a change in his vomiting. When I felt his abdomen, I didn’t like what I felt.

I immediately took him to the clinic and started tests. Initial x-rays showed he was constipated, but I knew that I was feeling more than that in his abdomen. I gave him an enema, ran some blood work, then performed an abdominal ultrasound. My heart sank during the ultrasound, because it confirmed my biggest fear: My kitty had intestinal cancer. I was going on vacation the next day and didn’t want to wait two weeks to get answers, so I cleared my schedule and prepared him for exploratory surgery.

During surgery I found an irregular mass nearly 4 inches wide at the end of his small intestine. I removed the abnormal piece of intestine and biopsied the nearby lymph nodes. I also took biopsies of his liver, stomach and pancreas. His surgery and recovery went well. I was very concerned about what the pathologist was going to find when he read the biopsies, but knew I had done everything I could for Shaka.

I left him in the care of my associate veterinarians and technicians and left the next day. I was able to check for his biopsy results online. The report stated that Shaka had high-grade intestinal lymphoma. Fortunately the cancer was confined to his intestine. The borders of the intestine that I removed were free of cancer cells, as were the adjacent lymph nodes. The stomach, liver, and pancreas showed no signs of cancer.

The news was mixed. My kitty had the most aggressive form of lymphoma, but I had removed all the active cancer, and there was no evidence of cancer in the surrounding tissue. The cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes or other major abdominal organs. I was getting emailed good reports on Shaka’s recovery from the clinic. My plan was to start him on chemotherapy when I returned home.

But his prognosis was guarded. Cats with high-grade lymphoma may not go into remission, but if they do, the median survival is between six and 24 months.

I was not worried about treating Shaka with chemotherapy. I have a lot of experience treating lymphoma patients in my clinic, and most of my experiences have been very good. The goal of chemotherapy is not just to keep the patient alive, but also to provide a good quality of life with minimal stress and discomfort.

Cats on chemotherapy don’t lose all of their hair. Sometimes they lose their whiskers, and hair that has been shaved, such as around the surgery site, grows back very slowly. Sometimes they vomit, and we use medications to control nausea and vomiting. We can stop or change treatment at any time based on how the cat and the owner feel.

Before starting Shaka’s chemotherapy, I took him to visit my friend, Mona Rosenberg, at her office in Tustin. She is a board-certified veterinary oncologist and owner of Veterinary Cancer Group. We consulted on his results and treatment options and came up with a plan. Rosenberg told me she had successfully treated a case similar to Shaka’s, and the patient had lived for five years. Shaka was 11 1/2 years old at the time, so if he lived to be 17, I thought it would be a miracle.

I took Shaka back to my office and started his treatments. He was going to be on a combination of drugs: a daily oral steroid and injectable chemo treatments every two weeks for the next six months. After the initial six months, if he was doing well, treatments would be spaced to every three weeks, and, after about 18 months, to monthly.

Shaka has done amazingly well with his treatments. Aside from medication, he has had follow-up lab work and several ultrasound scans. No new problems have arisen. He is now 2 1/2 years into treatment, and other than having a poor coat, you would never know he had cancer.

I don’t want to jinx Shaka’s remission. I am thankful for each additional month he is alive. When I spoke to Rosenberg a couple of months ago, she said she thought I should discontinue the chemotherapy after three years if remission was holding and then wean Shaka from his steroid treatment. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we make it to that point!

Cancer is a scary word to everyone, but many types can have successful outcomes. If your cat has cancer, be sure you find out what your options are, and don’t give up too quickly. Early diagnosis and treatment can lead to good results in many cases.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2012 The Cat Care Clinic