One cat’s journey through cancer treatment at Angell Animal Medical Center.
Dolce the orange tabby lost an eye to cancer two years ago, but didn’t let adversity stop him from playing with his crinkly ball or cuddling with the family, according to his owner, Cassidy Briggs of New Hampshire.
But last October, after Dolce started sneezing – really a lot – Briggs took him back to the vet only to find out cancer wasn’t finished with her 7-year-old cat.
This time, Dolce was diagnosed with a different – and worse – kind of tumor: a lymphoma inside his nose. It was unrelated to the first tumor, which was a melanoma.
“It was devastating news,” Briggs said. But she wasn’t ready to give up. Luckily, her sister happens to be a veterinarian and told her about an advance in cancer treatment, new at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.
The therapy is called Intensive-Modulated Radiation Therapy, or IMRT, for short, and it’s a game-changer for pets with cancer, MSPCA-Angell spokesman Rob Halpin said.
The treatment works by wrapping a laser around the tumor “so tightly that it destroys cancer cells without affecting nearby tissues,” Halpin said, meaning vets can blast through tumors aggressively without worrying about side effects damaging nearby vital organs, like the brain or the eyes.
Halpin said to make the whole experience less scary, for both pets and people, Angell has also replaced the needles with a Vascular Access Port where doctors deliver the chemo, anesthesia and other fluids.
Dolce had a slightly different device.
“As part of Dolce’s treatment, he was fitted with a special catheter that stays in for two to three days at a time — which enables the oncology team to administer anesthesia quickly and without having to prick him anew with needles at the start of each treatment,” Halpin said.
For a cancer survivor like Dolce, this type of radiation amounts to the “holy grail” of cancer therapies, according to Dr. Lyndsey Kubicek.
Angell is so far the only animal hospital in New England to offer IMRT, she said. The advance in cancer treatment is not brand new, she explained, but because it’s been around for only about a decade. Few vets, outside university veterinary hospitals, are trained in the procedures. Over the summer Angell spent about a half-million dollars to upgrade its equipment for IMRT and was ready to go Aug. 20.
The timing was close to perfect, Briggs said.
Dolce has undergone two laser treatments and is expected to complete his treatment course by month’s end.
“He’s pretty resilient,” Briggs said.
Dolce, whose name means “sweet” in Italian, suffers from a chronic heart and upper respiratory conditions. Briggs was told about the upper respiratory problem when she adopted him from the North Country Animal League in Vermont. He was five weeks old.
“He was the only cat meowing and reaching his paw out,” Briggs said. “He’s been really sweet and outgoing.”
Briggs has moved several times for her career and lives on the New Hampshire Seacoast now. Dolce has accompanied her and adjusted easily to changes of scene. “He warms up really quickly to people,” she said.
His favorite playtime activity, though, is brushing.
“He loves his brush,” she said. “He gets so happy” when he’s being groomed.
She’s hopeful her cat will have a few more happy years.
The Gabby Dog’s heart went out to Dolce and Briggs because Cousin Tom, cat of Assisi, Italy, died last year of a similar ailment. His vet kept chemo injections going as long as Tom stayed pain-free, but finally decided the kindest course would be to euthanize when Tom couldn’t eat anymore and had trouble breathing.
That’s been the typical outcome, according to Dr. Kubicek.
Indeed, without the special radiation, cancer treatment is “usually a tradeoff” with two difficult options: go after the cancer aggressively and risk skin burns, vision loss and worse – or minimize the side effects and under dose the tumor, said Dr. Kubicek.
She estimated the treatment costs about $6,500, including an initial $850 diagnostic Computerized Tomography (CT) scan. Pet insurance will pay for radiation, she said. Also, Angell offers payment options to help make the therapy affordable.
Dr. Kubicek is cautiously optimistic Dolce can go 18 months without symptoms – and maybe longer.
As for why Dolce developed the cancer, no one knows, she said.
He may have had an “underlying genetic predisposition that made him susceptible to environmental factors,” she said, but the cause wasn’t anything preventable.
Margo Ann Sullivan is a pet columnist who has written for ZooToo, and numerous publications in New York and in New England. She’s had pets all her life, starting with a rescue collie named Lollypop. The Gabby Dog column chases the news that helps pets and people. It also chronicles the adventures of Gabby, the peke-a-poo, and Asia, the tabby cat, and their many pals, hitting the high spots between Providence, RI, and Manchester, NH.