Like many people, 2017 reached epic proportions of suckage for me. There was the global stuff, like politics and healthcare, and misogyny. There was all the typical stuff, like getting older faster than you are getting wiser, or having to deal with hypothetical burdens made real. My 2017 had surprises in all kinds of sizes and shapes, pretty much ensuring a fresh struggle for every single day. One thing that happened that was verybad, on a personal level, was that Sheila, my beloved fifteen-year-old cat developed a large red sore on the back of her right leg. At first it seemed like it was a scrape, maybe from jumping against something, or a scratch from one of the other cats that she licked and made worse. The vet assured that it was nothing and prescribed the usual. She got a piece of tape and took some cell samples, in case.
The next thing I know there was bad news and worse news. Sheila had a mast cell tumor and not only one. There were other smaller tumors at three other places on her body, including her ear. There was talk of it metastasizing, spread to internal organs. One vet mentioned, as if early bluntness might soften the inevitable, amputating her leg. I googled and binged, you bet I did. But the information was sparse, especially for cats. Plenty of information for dogs, but even then, it wasn't circumstantial. The hierarchy of medical care seems to follow humans to dogs, recent studies for cats, and somewhere far far down the list are all other beings which a human might love enough to pay for medical care. The first thing that had to be done was to perform blood tests, ultrasounds, scans, to make sure she was healthy enough in other ways and to make sure her heart was strong enough to survive surgery. She wasn't a young cat, and at least one vet mentioned care that extended for no more than one year, since it was perhaps within her natural life span anyway. I did not accept that, I could not. Not with my heart or my head. At that point she was still, in my mind, a spry kitten with a cute little mew who curled up next to me each night and purred me to sleep.
We decided, the vet and I, that the best course was to perform surgery right away, to excise all four tumors. The top half of her ear would have to be removed, but the other three places, the back of the arm, the inguinal (belly) and shoulder were superficial skin lesions. My vet, my wonderful vet, would perform the surgery herself. She was careful to remind me that with the multiple lesions, removing them was not a guarantee. With mast cell tumors more is bad. One to three means reoccurrence is low, more than four is a whole new unknown category. I'm happy to say Sheila did well with her surgery. She came home the same day, pink skin puckered with stitches and slightly lopsided, but she was alive and home.
Unfortunately, though my vet was very thorough, she was not able to get clean margins on the inguinal site and the larger, back of her arm site. I decided to take her to a veterinary oncologist. I realized soon after that first visit that this is where I should have taken her the moment I learned that my cat had cancer. It wasn't exactly the first time I'd heard the advice either. A surgeon once advised me that if you ever need to see a doctor, go to a specialist. I've heard it elsewhere too, and for some things, not for all things, you'll have to use your judgment on which things. But when the resolution matters, go to a specialist.
This vet made sure to answer all my questions. After multiple visits to the internet, and being the inquisitive and curious person I am, I had plenty. I am firm believer in acquiring as much information as you can when you are trying to make a decision about something. We decided that the best course was to have the oncological veterinary surgeon look at her, and if possible have another surgery to get clean margins. Which we did and I was surprised, because my chubby cat was running out of excess flesh to pull from. But she came through that surgery with fine too. Still, the pathology came back with dirty margins. They were microscopic, sure, but everybody knows how insidious cancer is.
Amazingly, though, there wasn't just one, option for treatment, there was a multitude. I got to spend another long conversation with my vet, discussing which option would be the best. We opted for a chemotherapeutic drug called CCNU. I'd heard of this kind of drug years ago, when it had been touted in Time magazine as the end of cancer. The drug then was called Gleevec, and it only worked on certain cancers, but for those that it did, it had few side effects and was as simple as taking a pill. I don't know much more about it than that, but I will say that a surprising bonus for cat owners is that cats tolerate it so well you might not even know they were taking it.
So December 28, 2017 was Sheila's last chemo treatment. She's as spry and adorable as she was the day before she had a sore on her side. In a year that has seen so many surprisingly bad things, things that were, in general worse than you thought they were going to be (I'm talking mostly about personal things but it's been true in the wider world as well) this was a spot of brightness. It occurred to me that twenty years ago the only option would have been to euthanize her.
I got into bed on the last night of Sheila’s chemo, picked up the novel I’d been reading. Like every other night Sheila hopped up and walked around me, rubbed her face on my book and settled into the crook of my arm and began to purr. It was so normal, our habit playing like every other night before it for years on end. But here I paused and let at let the appreciation that I was here now, that she was here with me. That there existed smart and talented people in the world that had made it so.
So here is the goodness I found in 2017, and it’s not just mine, it can be yours, too. Things can be good in spite of the odds, no matter the status quo, even when you think you know whatever you knew.
Wisdom doesn't go away; it wends a path for others to follow. Some things get better, some things will always get better.