Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have a 14 year old DSH female that had surgery a few weeks ago to remove two small masses in her colon. The masses have been determined to be mast cell cancer. Her oncologist has suggested chemotherapy for her, but I am not sure if I want to put her through that. I have been trying to find more information on-line about feline cancer but have been having trouble finding anything useful. I’ve been looking for statistical information on different types of treatment options and there results. Can you help point me in a direction that might give me some good information?
Siouxsie: First of all, Stephan, we’re sorry your cat has been diagnosed with cancer. That’s a tough thing to hear.
Thomas: Mast cell tumors appear most commonly on the skin, but, as you know, they can also appear in the abdomen, primarily in the spleen or intestines.
Dahlia: Most mast cell tumors in the skin are benign, but mast cell tumors found in the internal organs are much more likely to be malignant.
Siouxsie: Mast cell tumors are graded as follows: Grade I is a well differentiated tumor, resembling normal mast cells and unlikely to spread. Grade II tumors are moderately differentiated: some cells are easy to see and some need a closer look.
Thomas: Grade III tumors, on the other hand, are poorly differentiated. They are hard to identify without special lab procedures, and they are much more likely to metastasize (spread throughout the body).
Dahlia: Cats with Grade II and Grade III tumors are often referred to veterinary oncologists for specialized treatment.
Siouxsie: The first round of treatment of this cancer is surgery, which your cat has already had. It tends to be a pretty radical surgery, with removal of a lot of tissue around the tumor, including nearby lymph nodes. These tissues are then sent to a pathologist for grading and staging. Staging refers to the size of the tumor and degree of spread from the tumor site.
Thomas: The choice of follow-up treatment is determined by what the pathologist finds. Veterinary oncologists recommend chemotherapy for cats with Grade III tumors because the cancer has already metastasized or is very likely to metastasize.
Dahlia: The reason you haven’t been able to find statistics on the effectiveness of chemotherapy is because the results are mixed. Some cats experience a complete remission and some cats don’t have such good luck.
Siouxsie: Veterinarians view chemotherapy and other therapies for cancers in advanced stages as palliative. That is, the treatment is unlikely to result in a cure, but it will enhance your cat’s quality of life and prolong her survival.
Thomas: Cats do experience pain as a result of cancer. Your cat will be in a lot of pain without the chemotherapy or any other kind of palliative treatment.
Dahlia: The chemo will make her sick for a day or so after each treatment, but it will give her more time with you and the time to do the grieving you need to do and enjoy every moment you have with her.
Siouxsie: Whether or not to embark on a course of chemo is a difficult choice, and honestly we can’t make any recommendations because we don’t know your cat or your situation or the facts about her disease.
Thomas: We would recommend that you have a serious talk with your cat’s oncologist about all the possible courses of treatment or palliation. Ask him or her about the goal of the chemo, and because your oncologist has a much better grasp on survival statistics than any website does, he or she should be your source of information.
Dahlia: Make sure to talk about pain management, too.
Siouxsie: You might find the Yahoo group feline-cancer to be a good source of information and support for you.
Thomas: Petplace has an in-depth article about mast cell tumors in cats. You’ll find a lot of information there, in language laypeople can understand.
Dahlia: If you’re interested in doing chemotherapy but the cost is prohibitive, your cat may qualify to participate in clinical trials of chemotherapy drugs, which typically reimburse the cost of initial screening and do not charge for the treatment.
Siouxsie: Remember that your cat isn’t experiencing the same kind of dread humans feel when they’re diagnosed with cancer. Cats don’t have the same kind of understanding or beliefs about what cancer means. All she knows is that she’s sick and you’re trying to help her feel better.
Thomas: Don’t forget to keep your heart open. Some humans tend to shut down emotionally when they’re grieving or they know they’re going to lose an animal companion — but your cat needs you more than ever now. Please remember to enjoy every day you have left together.
Dahlia: We hope we’ve been of some help to you, Stefan, and we wish you and your kitty the best of luck in your journey.