Few things are as crushing as receiving a cancer diagnosis for your beloved animal companion. It happened to me several years ago with my Canadian calico cat, Katya, and now my Inquirer colleague Mari Schaefer is facing a similar trauma. In October she learned her cat, Mouse, had a terminal - and aggressive - form of the disease. In the course of learning all she could about Mouse's condition and treatments she stumbled on word of drug trials for pets at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Center. I'll let Mari take the story from here.
The minute I saw the look in the veterinarian’s eyes, I knew the news about the marble-sized lump on my cat’s upper jaw was going to be bad.
A biopsy confirmed Mouse had feline oral squamous cell carcinoma - a disease that is terminal in cats. Once the diagnosis is made, cats usually only live about 60 days.
I found Mouse in my Tucson, Arizona backyard on a hot July day about 15 years ago. When I first saw her from a distance, I thought she was a rat - hence the name Mouse.
It was only when I saw her up close a few days later as she was drinking out of the potted plant I just watered, I realized she was a stray kitten. She was between five and 10 weeks old at the time and probably tossed into the dry river bed behind my home - a noted coyote highway through town.
She was emaciated, with just wisps of dirty fur on her tail and very little on her ears and body. I could count her ribs. Those dark spots on her white body, I would later find out, were colonies of stick-tight fleas.
It took about a week to gain her trust and get her to a veterinarian. With a little nutrition she grew like a weed and has been healthy ever since.
Then in early October, I saw a pronounced lump in the top left side of her face.
After absorbing the bad news and finding out radiation and surgery were not a good options, I looked online just to read more about the disease.
The Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania website had a link for clinical trials for both dogs and cats.
They listed a drug study for Feline Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma, the exact disease Mouse had.
I emailed the researcher, Dr. John Lewis for more information. My regular vet, Dr. Curt D. Heyde at Pets First in Bryn Mawr, faxed over all the records and biopsy results and we had an appointment a few days later.
Dr. Lewis, Assistant Professor of Dentistry and Oral Surgery, explained the study was already in Phase II.
They were investigating how a drug could impact the tumor cells. (The study is currently on hold and not recruiting new patients.)
A combination of two study drugs were used to target compounds in cells called polyamines, which play a role in cell replication and growth. The hope was the drugs would prevent the polyamines from working and delay or halt the tumor growth.
It was not a “magic bullet,” Lewis said, but it might give Mouse more quality time. There were a few cats, with similar tumors who lived more than 200 days on the study medication. Other cats, some who had tumors in the bottom of their mouth, did not do as well, he said.
I would have to agree to administer the drugs three times a day, keep a log, and agree to an autopsy at Penn once Mouse died.
Mouse would undergo testing under anesthesia at the beginning and end of the four week trial. I would also have to bring her to Penn for a blood test every two weeks while she is on the medications. The drugs, vet exams, medical tests and procedures, euthanasia and cremation would be provided at no cost if Mouse was admitted to the study. She would be able to continue on the drugs once her obligation is over.
And - this is big - parking at Penn is free when I visited.
I agreed to the conditions. It was not a hard choice to make knowing Mouse would soon die. If something good could comes from this down the road, I know I will feel better. And, if my little friend could maintain a quality of life for a bit longer, it would be worth it all.
After a quick exam, Mouse was admitted to the study.
Just before Thanksgiving Mouse completed the four week trial and was immediately admitted to Phase III for another round. In the new phase, the drug combinations changed and I only have to administer the dose twice a day - a huge relief to us both. On December 20, she completed her second four-week trial.
The effects of the clinical trial on Mouse have not been unbearable.
She was a little groggy after her “big test” days when they knock her out for the biopsies and CT scans. Mouse did developed an infection a few weeks into the the Phase II trial and needed antibiotics. She has continued with those every since. There has been occasional vomiting.
Mouse clearly does not like the medications and does hide behind a chair when she knows it is time. I give her three medications - one for pain, the antibiotics and the study drugs. I usually give her the pain meds about an hour before the other two.
There have been days when Mouse seemed a bit tired and not as peppy. Her left eye is clearly affected by the growth of the tumor. And, she is starting to drool a bit from one side.
But, mostly she is still - Mouse. She plays with her toys and spars with Lily, my other cat. She loves the Christmas tree and plays around that at night. Always a big fan of TV, Mouse likes to settle in on the couch and watch the action. She still eats on her own and comes running for whipped cream when she hears me shake the can. (Clearly the medication didn’t affect her hearing.) And, she still crawls into my bed at night to snuggle.
I continue to give her the study drugs and bring her down to Penn for every other week blood tests. The staff, including her nurse Dana Durso, have been professional, helpful, and honest about her future.
There is no getting around the fact Mouse will soon die. Participating in the study has given me some comfort knowing I did the best for her.
Penn Vet has a number of trials in progress including one for bone cancer in dogs and a study on hypertension in cats with chronic kidney disease.
Call 215-573-0302 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on the trials or visit their website.