This is a story concerning pets-those cuddling co-inhabitants that have a way of inserting themselves into our homes and hearts. More specifically, this is a tale about cats. Let me begin by telling you that I started my life being highly allergic to them. In fact, I was once removed from my second grade classroom and rushed to the local hospital for a hefty dose of adrenaline when my eyes swelled shut and my breathing was seriously impaired — the result of my exposure to cats.
And so I grew up being angry at cats. As a little boy I knew they made me sick and so that inherent cuteness that touches most anyone with a love of animals was never available to me.
Fast forward now about 60 years. I did have a couple of cats along the way, and I found them to be wonderful friends, and over the years my itchy eyes and runny nose have eased up significantly. After my breast cancer diagnosis in May of 2014, my wife and I talked of getting ourselves a kitten.
I have to admit that as a relatively new cancer survivor, I wondered if a kitten might outlive me — a strange but sobering thought. We moved into our home near Tucson Arizona — a very cat-friendly house — and talked now and then about adding a feline to our family of two. Then my wife ran across news of a tiny kitten at the local animal shelter who was a breast cancer survivor! She had just three legs after a serious surgery, but was as peppy and charming as could be “What can we do with a three-legged cat?” I asked myself. Then I remembered that I am a one-breasted man and nobody seemed to mind.
We talked it over for a couple of days and finally got in the car with a cat carrier and drove to the animal shelter. This would be the perfect cat to love, we agreed.
When we arrived we were told the cat had been adopted. In fact, the outpouring of compassion and kindness was impressive. A lot of people had called the shelter, wanting to give a home to that cat.
Months went by before a neighbor told us her daughter lived on a horse ranch about 25 miles out of Tucson and 5 baby barn cats had been born. The coyotes would surely make supper of some or all of them so we were advised to come take a look immediately.
And there they were huddled up in one corner of the dusty barn. I picked up one and my wife another. “Which should we take?” We held tight to the kittens in our hands and before we knew it, we had two new family members.
And here’s the important part of the story. The National Center for Health Research concluded that the social support a pet provides can make a person feel more relaxed and decrease stress. Cancer survivors, and anyone with a life-threatening illness have supported these findings. Social support from friends and family can have similar benefits, but interpersonal relationships often cause stress as well, whereas pets may be less likely to cause stress the studies show.
A study at Cambridge University found that owning a pet produced improvements in general health in as little as one month.
And Dr. Edward Creagan, an Oncologist at Mayo Clinic Rochester, Minnesota recently remarked: ”A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits. I can’t always explain it myself, but for years now I’ve seen how instances of having a pet is like an effective drug. It really does help people.”
Today, as I write this, our kittens are not quite three months old. They are a constant source of joy and laughter and easily the best anti-stress therapy I have going. While a pet is no cure for cancer, having one is certainly a great antidote to a down day. So I have self-prescribed multiple doses of furry feline to myself.
And now, that empty space on my left breast, once scarred and void of sensation, has been filled beautifully with the gentle heartbeat of two purring kittens.