Nina Nechyporuk did not give it much thought when her senior ragdoll cat, Abby, jumped from her lap to the floor and made a short wheezing sound.
Strange, but nothing to worry about, she thought. Just two days later, though, Abby was noticeably struggling to breathe, and by Friday, her owners, Nechyporuk and Richard Waugh, were unsure if their beloved cat would survive.
“We didn’t think she was going to make it through the night — it was unbearable,” Nechyporuk says.
In the ensuing days, the couple would learn Abby had a life-threatening tumor in her trachea. While just millimeters in size, it was blocking her airway.
There was never any doubt they would do everything possible to save Abby, but when the treatments available at veterinary clinics near their home outside of Vancouver, Canada, failed to keep the cancer at bay, options were dwindling.
The best hope was some seven-and-a-half hours away in Pullman at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
Nechyporuk and Waugh have always considered themselves a “cat family,” but until Abby, all their cats had been strays and others in need of love. As they considered their first purebred in 2003, a ragdoll sounded like the perfect fit — the breed, after all, is known for being overly affectionate and for its tendency to go limp and relaxed when picked up.
It did not take long for the couple to realize that Abby did not fit the breed description.
“As a young cat, she didn’t really have much use for Richard and I,” Nechyporuk says. “She was a very independent cat and standoffish. She does not behave at all like you would expect from a ragdoll.”
That never detracted from their love of Abby.
Waugh first arrived in Pullman with Abby in Memorial Day of 2019 prepared for an extended stay. Under the care of Dr. Janean Fidel, WSU’s lead veterinary oncologist, Abby was to undergo 18 rounds of radiation therapy using the teaching hospital’s linear accelerator, or LINAC, a machine that allows tumors to be targeted with powerful radiation.
Abby responded remarkably well to the treatments, and nearly a month later she and Waugh finally returned home. A follow-up CT scan in October of 2019 showed the treatments had worked and the tumor had shrunk.
“They asked us to come back in the spring of 2020, in March or April,” Nechyporuk says. “But we all know what happened — COVID. We did not make it back for that appointment.”
Then, in November, the wheezing started again. The tumor had returned, and Abby found herself back at WSU. Dr. Fidel recommended 10 doses of radiation therapy to target the tumor, followed by several rounds of chemotherapy. Abby has completed her radiation treatment and has had two chemotherapy treatments, the second of which was delayed due to her having a low white blood cell count.
Despite having undergone 28 radiation treatments since May of 2019, a recent X-ray of Abby’s lungs shows they are still in good condition.
“We have so much confidence in Dr. Fidel. We wouldn’t have Abby treated anywhere else,” Waugh says. “The outlook for Abby is good. She is not suffering, she’s not in pain and she responds very well to the treatment — she’s a fighter.”
Dr. Fidel says it is unlikely Abby would be alive if it were not for the radiation treatments she received using the LINAC. The machine is one of the only available for radiation treatment in the region. Every year it is used to treat hundreds of animals throughout Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Canada.
The WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital is currently raising money to purchase a new LINAC. As the machine has aged, it is no longer as dependable as it once was, as demonstrated by the two times during Abby’s treatments that it unexpectedly stopped working. Fortunately, it only resulted in slight delays for Abby.
“It is like a very old car that keeps needing to be repaired,” Dr. Fidel says. “It is repairable, and it functions, but it is going to flat out stop at some point.”
Fidel says a newer machine will also allow radiation to be better directed at tumors while protecting surrounding healthy tissue, and dosage rates can be better moderated, reducing treatment time.
Abby, her owners say, has changed considerably since starting her treatment. The once independent cat now seems to enjoy the companionship of Nechyporuk and Waugh. She is genuinely affectionate, and she has even become more of a lap cat.
“She sits on my lap every single night — now I am the center of her world,” Nechyporuk says. “We love her to bits.”
“I think,” Waugh adds, “she realizes how much we love her.”