My eyes were red and swollen from crying all night.
The day before, my surgeon confirmed my worst fear: I had cancer.
After I got the fated phone call, my then-husband and I decided to adopt a cat at a local animal shelter the very next day. It would be a joyful distraction, we reasoned, and I had been longing for a cat for years. (I do love all animals, but I’ve always had a soft spot for cats.)
Now, at the animal shelter, I was too bleary-eyed to notice the ugly brown tabby that grabbed me with her paw as I passed her cage.
I stopped, considering her. She was purring loudly and gazing at me with what seemed to be a look of love, as if she sensed my hurt. She persisted, grabbing me with the other paw, demanding that I pay her attention. I told the shelter volunteer I was interested in holding the animal, jokingly telling my husband “Oh, the cat is nice now, but watch it scratch my face off!”.
I sat down and the volunteer gently placed the cat on my lap. She purred and purred as I stroked her dull fur, and she sat on my lap as if she belonged there. She looked into my eyes, perhaps searchingly, perhaps knowingly, but the magic was there.
The magic being that for the 10 minutes I held her, cancer did not exist. Terror did not exist. Time stopped, and all I felt was complete joy. I forgot about my tumor. I forgot about doctors. As the volunteer pried her from my lap, the kitty kept trying to cling to me. And I longed to have her in my arms again.
A spay and a few vaccinations later, Cosette (the name we gave her) was in our home. But something was terribly wrong with her.
As I was getting lost navigating through doctors and dealing with my new-found status of cancer patient, I was losing my cat.
She was refusing to eat, losing weight, and veterinarians couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They told me that this six-pound cat wasn’t worth keeping alive. At around the same time, an oncologist told me that I would probably not live.
Both of us were in a real predicament. Hearing about Cosette’s probable death would be hard news for anyone to take, but for me going through cancer hell, it was too much. I cried a lot, but I still held her weak, limp body in my arms and listened to her purring — unsure of our fates. There we were, both ill, with uncertain futures.
My lumpectomy was scheduled (I initially chose lumpectomy with radiation), and I kept obsessing that the cat would die first, and then I would die. I knew she needed medical help fast, so I called the shelter, which had an in-house veterinary clinic. I spoke to a kind veterinarian who was a cat specialist. I explained my situation: that I had cancer and was having surgery in a few days. She reassured me that the cat could still bounce back, and she offered to hospitalize Cosette for free while I was in the hospital. I agreed.
It turns out, Cosette and I were in our respective hospitals at the same time. We had IVs at the same time!
I and those annoying drains were finally released from the hospital. A couple of days later, my brother drove me to the shelter to get Cosette, who was very much alive — and pretty. Turned out she had a severe upper respiratory infection that demanded immediate attention. She was now good as new, purring up a storm.
Throughout chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she was my constant companion, running to me when I was crying, jumping on my lap when I needed hugs, and refusing to leave my side when I was so very sick. As I convalesced, she sat on my lap and purred. And this did me a world of good during the most frightening time of my life.
We helped each other through the tough times. Despite how sick I was during treatment, I still managed to take Cosette to her followups. She and I were a team, cheering each other on to embrace life.
Today, 13 years later, Cosette is a happy geriatric cat who still doesn’t leave my side. We are close and we still take great care of eachother. She has helped me through my divorce, a few moves, several surgeries — including my DIEP — and lots of medical scares. She was with me when I got the news that my friend Faun died of metastatic breast cancer.
And now, as I write this post, she is with me — curled up by my feet. It is a widely known fact that pet therapy helps patients heal and/or cope with trauma. I’m not saying Cosette’s presence resulted in NED for me. However, her presence certainly calmed me and helped me cope with all the difficulties life dished out, especially cancer diagnosis and treatment.
A few years ago, another feline, Hemi, aptly named for his purrific style and flair, joined our family. Cosette is the dominant cat, but for the most part, they get along. Hemi is a sweet tuxedo Manx, who also offers love and support when I and Arielle need it most.
I know people who never want to live with animals. They are entitled to their choice, of course.
But I know that my life is truly enriched by two very special cats.
Do you believe in pet therapy?
I would love to hear your stories about your pets. How have they helped you?
Tags: cats and cancer, cats and healing, pet therapy, pets and cancer, pets and healing