Treating Cancer in Cats
Goals of Treating Cancer in Cats
While a diagnosis of cancer is never good, early detection and treatment of cancer in cats can be remarkably successful. Surgery is usually the treatment of choice, although some types of feline cancer respond better to radiation, biological, chemical or heat-related therapies. Sometimes, the recommended approach is to use a combination of treatments. The primary goal of treating cancer is to eliminate all cancerous cells from the cat’s body. If that isn’t possible, the goal is to put the cancer into remission and make the animal as healthy and comfortable as possible, for as long as possible.
Surgical Treatment Options
Solitary cancerous masses are usually removed surgically. It is extremely important for the veterinarian to excise a wide margin of normal tissue around the tumor. This is called “getting clean margins.” Incomplete removal of cancerous tissue almost always causes the cancer to return, making it increasingly difficult to treat. Sometimes, it may be appropriate to remove masses even if clean margins aren’t possible, such as when the tumors are infected or physically interfere with the cat’s normal activities. The veterinarian will submit all removed tissues to a laboratory, where pathologists will determine the type of cancer involved and whether clean surgical margins were obtained. This information will guide the course of further treatment.
Non-Surgical Treatment Options
If a cat’s tumors are inoperable, other treatment options are available. These include radiation, chemotherapy, heat-based therapy and immunological therapy, among others. Many cancer cells are killed by exposure to high levels of radiation, although radiation can also kill healthy tissue, which is one of its adverse side effects. Chemotherapy involves giving anti-cancer drugs that target and destroy rapidly-dividing cells throughout the cat’s body, including cancer cells. Unfortunately, cancer cells aren’t the only ones that multiply rapidly. Other cells that do this are hair cells and those lining the gastrointestinal tract, which explains why hair falls out and patients often become nauseous when receiving chemotherapeutic treatment. While the goal is to eliminate all cancer cells, it isn’t presently possible to completely isolate healthy tissue from cancerous tissue during these treatments. Sometimes, the veterinarian will recommend multiple therapies, such as combining surgery with radiation or chemotherapy.
Heat-based therapies, such as electrocautery and cryosurgery, can be used to remove tumors on a cat’s skin, depending on their size and location. Electrocautery, also called hyperthermy, involves using heat to burn off skin tumors. Cryotherapy involves freezing off cancerous skin masses. Hormone therapy and immunotherapy can help manage some types of cancer. An emerging treatment uses special drugs that are sensitive to particular wavelengths of light. These are injected into the cat together with a substance that targets cancer cells. The tumor is then saturated with light. Like most other cancer treatments, these newer procedures are only available at highly specialized veterinary referral centers.
Supportive Cancer Therapies
Modern cancer management involves far more than surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. Nutritional support, pain management, ulcer prevention, physical therapy and other supportive techniques are all critical components of a comprehensive cancer treatment plan.