Last Updated on: February 23, 2011 by Ingrid King

Melissa Steinberg lost her beloved cat and best friend Sophia to lymphoma in November of last year.  On May 7, 2011, Melissa will be running in the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half-Marathon to raise money for the Animal Cancer Foundation to help find a cure, or at least more effective treatments, for this devastating disease for both humans and their animal companions.

Melissa first met Sophia when she was living in Los Angeles and working crazy hours in the film industry. Even though she was worried that her lifestyle at that time was not conducive to having a pet, she began looking at photos of cats at LA shelters online.  Says Melissa “I looked at all of those cats, and I thought, how can I pick just one?  But then I saw Sophia, with those eyes.  I just couldn’t stop thinking about her and I couldn’t wait for the weekend when I would be able to go to the shelter and get her and bring her home.” 

Sophia was about 4 years old.  The shelter workers wouldn’t even let Melissa touch Sophia without protective gloves.  Sophia was terrified, and they were not sure whether she would be aggressive. Melissa had already made up her mind before she even met Sophia, and brought her home that day. Sophia hid for three days.  She wouldn’t eat, and ultimately, Melissa had to crawl under the bed and syringe feed her.

On the third night, Melissa was watching tv, and Sophia was watching her. “Finally, she came out, jumped on my chest, curled up and went to sleep.  From that moment forward, we were inseparable” says Melissa. Sophia never lost her fear of people, with the exception of Melissa and her husband David, whom she met after adopting Sophia.

Eventually, Melissa moved to New York with Sophia. Melissa attended law school, and she was worried that Sophia might get lonely, so she adopted another cat, Dr. Katz, from Animal Care and Control in Manhattan. The two cats hated each other from the moment they met, and couldn’t even be in the same room together. Sophia only ever wanted to be with Melissa and David. She slept on Melissa’s pillow every night. She was happy.  Eventually, Melissa and David adopted Earl Grey to keep Dr. Katz company.

When Sophia was 10 or 11 years old, Melissa noticed that she wasn’t eating, and took her to the vet for tests.  She knew cancer was a possiblity, but she hadn’t even gotten the test results back when Sophia crashed.  Melissa rushed her to the VCA Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center in Norwalk, CT in the middle of the night. Sophia was in extremely critical condition, and spent five nights at the clinic. She still didn’t have a definitive diagnosis, so Melissa took her to the famed Animal Medical Center in Manhattan.

The diagnosis was lymphoma, and Sophia received chemotherapy at the Veterinary Oncology and Hematology Center in Norwalk, CT.  She never responded well. Eventually the disease started to affect her central nervous system, and she wasn’t eating, no matter what they tried.  In order to get nutrition into her, the vets inserted a naso-gastric feeding tube.  Sophia pulled it out. The vets placed an endogastric tube, but while recovering from the surgery, Sophia kept getting seizures, which they were not able to control, and she died that night.  

“From the day she got sick to the day she died, it was barely more than a month,” remembers Melissa.  “It was a terrifyingly fast-moving, aggressive cancer.  For most of her illness we didn’t have much time to think, we just acted.  We made sure she had the best possible care, but that meant we were at the vet nearly every day.  We knew she had a terminal illness, but we truly believed we’d have her for several months, if not years.  We never believed we could lose her so quickly.”

During Sophia’s treatment, a friend who was about to run the New York marathon suggested to put together a fundraiser to help defray Sophia’s massive veterinary costs.  Melissa thought about it, and had just started training when Sophia died.

Melissa decided that it was more important to do something to honor Sophia’s memory, and she choose the Animal Cancer Foundation as the beneficiary.  She choose ACF because Dr. Gerald S. Post, DVM, ACVIM, one of the founders of ACF, was Sophia’s vet at the time of her illness.  “He was very caring and thoughtful and loving with her when she was so sick.” She choose a California location to honor Sophia’s heritage.

Melissa has never run a half-marathon before, but she ran competitively in high school, so that distance is not foreign for her.  Until the weather improves, she is training on the treadmill, but she is signed up for some shorter road races over the next few months.

If you’d like to contribute to Melissa’s fundraising efforts and help honor Sophia’s memory,  you can do so by visiting her fundraising page at Crowdrise

The Animal Cancer Foundation develops and supports research that advances the prevention and treatment of cancer for people and pets. Specifically, their endeavors focus on furthering research in comparative oncology, which is the study of cancers that occur similarly in both pets and humans. In this way, ACF is committed to advancing the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of such cancers, and becoming a preeminent resource in educating the public and scientific community.

Melissa Steinberg is an attorney who lives in Connecticut in the New York City suburbs with her husband David, a writer/editor, and their 13-month-old son Jack.  They still have Dr. Katz and Earl Grey.  One of Jack’s first words was  “kitty,” and Melissa and David are very proud of that.