Saying goodbye

Bradley and Cooper as kittens.

It has been six months since I had to say goodbye to Bradley. I still feel the pain. I tried to write about him many times, but every time a thought would enter my head, my brain would shut down. It still does.

Bradley and Cooper.

Grief is painful.

Bradley was my cat, a black tuxedo I adopted from the ASPCA in 2015 while I was in graduate school. Bradley, together with his brother Cooper, changed my life. The moment I signed the adoption papers, I knew life will never be the same. I felt at ease. I have not felt that kind of happiness in a long time.

As a graduate student, life can be very stressful. It is a constant struggle to keep up with work and everything seems urgent. Luckily, regardless of how stressful my day was, coming home to purrs and play has always helped me relax.

Bradley in the Einstein apartment.

To the surprise of many, I grew up with dogs. Many dogs. I always found dogs easy to understand, almost intuitive, while cats seemed very mysterious. In reality, these differences were only my perception and inexperience with cats, not the actual truth. Cats are simply more subtle in how they express their emotions than dogs. Seeing their subtleties requires a lot of practice and patience. For example, a cat owner has to learn more than a dozen ways a cat can express himself through his tail. It is not an easy communication to master.

Since he was a kitten, Bradley had a hidden agenda for challenging my habits. Specifically, he had an obsession with pushing objects off any counter. Countless times you could hear glass shattering on the floor. With every broken cup and many sentimental objects destroyed, I often felt annoyed, but one could never stay angry at Bradley. He was an affection seeker with otherwise proper manners. On the bright side, he definitely helped me to declutter my apartment, at least in part.

Bradley hoping for some play.

What I did not realize then, was that he was telling me to pay more attention to now and not to my past.

Bradley gave me many wonderful memories and I will forever be grateful to have him in my life. The affection he had towards people was enormous. Most nights you would find him sitting on the lap of my husband watching TV.

Bradley was diagnosed with B cell spinal lymphoma in the Fall of 2022. Three different veterinarians missed the initial diagnosis at three different emergency hospitals stating that it was a pulled tail injury. They couldn’t be further from the truth.

Diagnosing spinal cancer in a cat is very dificult. This is even more challenging when all other tests seem normal: perfect bloodwork and urinalysis, no large masses on an X-ray, no other initial symptoms other than a limp tail. Thus, based on the initial impression, Bradley started receiving steroids and began to improve, but my happiness did not last long.

Dorsal view of Bradley’s spine. A large mass compressing the spinal cord is clearly visible.

Three months after his initial limp tail diagnosis, Bradley began to regress. By the time he got an MRI, he started to lose strength in his back legs. MRI as a diagnostic test may be quite simple to administer to people, but for animals it requires a full sedation. I had to see what was going on. He deserved the best treatment I could afford.

The initial impression of his MRI results was devastating. Extradural mass compressing the spinal cord.

Without a biopsy it was impossible to determine the diagnosis. The radiologist and oncologist suggested “meningioma, lymphosarcoma, or other”. None of the options were good news. None of the suggestions would turn out to be correct.

Biopsy results read: lymphoma, favor large cell. CD3+ PAX6+

Histology gave us the grave news: B cell spinal lymphoma. My heart dropped. His diagnosis was emotionally draining.

I struggled to find reliable scientific literature describing and treating feline spinal cancers. From the very few papers that I found, most cats with this diagnosis had survival day 1 from the diagnosis. That meant euthanasia. I could not do it. I was not ready to give up him. Scientific papers had very few notes which cats survived and which ones did not. This meant only one thing, even the veterinarians were going blind.

The staff oncologist strongly pushed for a CHOP protocol, a combination chemotherapy consisting of cyclophosphamide, hydroxydaunorubicin hydrochloride (doxorubicin hydrochloride), vincristine and prednisone. I was mentally drained, I said yes. I could not find any valid scientific evidence for anything better.

I used this image for years during graduate school on my thank you slide.

Cancer treatment for cats is very similar to human treatment. They start with initially weekly IV infusions of one of the drugs, bloodwork to make sure they can tolerate the dose, and daily prednisolone, painkillers, and if needed, anti-nausea pills. I or my husband would drive him every Friday morning to LIVS, hoping we can fight the lymphoma.

The initial treatments seemed to work, but their effect did not last a long time. Bradley stopped responding to chemotherapy several weeks after. After over 6 weeks he regressed quickly. His tumor was unforgiving. His own cells betrayed his body.

Bradley posing.

I needed time to realize that many drugs used in the CHOP protocol do not readily cross the blood-brain-barrier. This means that they are not as effective to treat cancers within the spinal cord or the brain.

As a scientists I was furious with myself. I should have known better. His condition was so rare that even the veterinarians did not know what to do with it. We were running out of options.

After the fifth dose, the oncologist decided to stop CHOP and try CCNU, also known as lomustine. If I only knew how toxic this drug is…I have never felt more powerless.

Bradley at student housing.

Day by day Bradley was getting weaker. I saw his suffering. I was missing his sassiness. I was missing his purrs. I was missing him sitting on my lap.

The feeling of powerlessness was overwhelming. The financial strain of his medical bills was adding up, and his chemotherapy was failing. I exhausted all treatment options available. I knew that there was no treatment that could have saved him even if I had millions to spend.

What was even more important, I could not put him through more. I had to stop. Somehow deep down I hoped that he knew that too.

None of this knowledge made me feel any better.

I loved Bradley very much and seeing him deteriorate so rapidly made me question everything about my life. I saw no motivation my work. I reached for answers, but could not find them. Emotionally I was a wreck. I still struggle to express my feelings. To me, Bradley was a close family member.

Letting him go was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in a long time. I could see in his eyes that it was time to go. I tried to deny that, but holding him for the last time was excruciating. Even now I cannot write about it without crying. Something in me broke and it will never heal.

My last day with Bradley.

His absence left a void in my heart that I cannot fill. I do not want to fill the void either. It will be his forever.

He was with me for sever years. Sever years I will never forget.

There is a famous Polish poet who writes, “Let us hurry to love people they depart so quickly.” I say, we should hurry to love animals too, as they love us unconditionally.

I hope he felt loved and cared for. I will miss him forever.

I decided to express my feeling very openly for a major reason. Many people dismiss the bond we develop with our pets. My strong feeling is that if I felt this way, I know there were others who felt the exact same way. I want you to know that I understand your pain. Do not let anybody tell you that your pain is any less.

In loving memory of Bradley. 2015.04.25 – 2022.11.14

Bradley and his siblings over the years.

Christmas 2015.
Few month before the diagnosis.
Bradley, Cooper, Julian, and Seurat.

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