The very mention of cancer can strike fear into the heart of many people. This is not surprising, since cancer is a serious disease, and we all worry about a diagnosis of it, whether for ourselves, our relatives, or our beloved cats. But in cats as in people, there are many different types of cancer, all alike in that they are caused by cells multiplying in an out-of-control fashion, but otherwise differing in a number of ways. Some are far more easily curable than others, but many can be cured if discovered early enough. There are many more ways of detecting cancer than there were even in the recent past, and many more treatment options too. Let us look at a number of these...
The first step to treating any cancer is identifying it and establishing its nature. All too often, an owner suspects that their cat may have cancer, but delays seeking veterinary advice because they fear the possible diagnosis. But as stated above, many cancers can be cured if discovered early enough, before they have spread.
Some cancers are identifiable as obvious lumps. This applies particularly to those on the skin, although others might be noticed, perhaps in the mouth or abdomen. So if you think your cat has any kind of lump or growth, take it to the vet as soon as possible. But other types of cancer may not be so obvious, and there may be other symptoms, such as sudden weight loss or – in the case of chest cancers – abnormal breathing. In these cases it will be necessary to carry out further tests, using techniques such as ultrasound or radiography, in order to detect the cancer.
Wherever a cancer is situated, once it has been found the vet will probably need to sample it to identify its type. This will probably be done by biopsy, which may just involve sucking out some of the cells using a needle and syringe. But more often means cutting into the tumour under anaesthetic.
There is now quite a range of treatment options, which may be used individually or in combination. The choice will depend upon the nature of the tumour, the facilities available, and the wishes of the cat's owner.
Surgery. With many types of cancer there is a good chance of curing it completely with surgery if it is discovered early enough. However, it is necessary to remove all potentially cancerous cells, and this may involve removing a large amount of tissue. This can shock an owner, who wasn't expecting such a large incision or such a drastic operation, but it is the best way of ensuring that the cancer does not return. Repeated surgery once a cancer regrows will always carry a much worse outlook than if a cancer is removed at the first attempt.
Chemotherapy. Drugs are quite commonly used to treat some types of cancer in cats, and can be very effective. In humans, chemotherapy is often associated with rather nasty side effects, because they are used in high doses to try to bring about a complete cure. But in cats, the aim is generally to produce a remission rather than a cure, and it is often possible to give the cat an extra couple of years of life or more, without causing much in the way of side effects. So owners should not be too worried about a cat's quality of life if chemotherapy is suggested, although of course you will always want to discuss it with your vet. Chemotherapy can be very effective against the most common feline cancer, lymphosarcoma.
Radiotherapy. This is carried out less often as it can only be done in centres which have access to specialised facilities. It usually involves irradiating the tumour with high-energy radiation, targetted as closely as possible on the affected area. However, it will invariably cause some damage to associated healthy structures. Radiotherapy is particularly useful for the most common form of skin cancer in cats, squamous cell carcinoma. It tends to affect the nose and ears, particularly of white cats. It is likely to spread locally, but does not tend to spread to other parts of the body. It is very sensitive to radiotherapy, so if used alone or in combination with surgery, this can often result in a complete cure. Sometimes another type of tumour may be treated with radiation by other means, such as implanting small radioactive rods into the tumour itself; this is known as bradytherapy.
Palliative Care. Treatment should always be explored as an option. But if it is not possible or does not seem like a good idea for a number of reasons, another option is simply to keep the cat comfortable and happy, and euthanise him when he begins to show signs of pain or distress. This is perfectly reasonable, and may be the best option for elderly cats which are not expected to live very long in any case. Some cancers can become infected, and antibiotics may be used if this happens. Painkillers can be used to help maintain a good quality of life. The decision to end the cat's life should be a joint one between the owner and the vet, and should be guided by the welfare of the cat, and what they feel the cat itself would want if it was able to talk.
Just as in human medicine, veterinary medicine has taken giant leaps in recent years when it comes to diagnosing and treating cancers. One of these particularly worth mentioning is feline leukaemia, which is caused by a virus, and for which a vaccine is now available. As a result, this is now a very rare disease. But treatment of other cancers has greatly improved too, and owners should not be scared of either the diagnosis or the treatment. So if your cat has a lump, is losing weight, or has other unexplained symptoms, do take it to the vet sooner rather than later.