Our Pets, Our Selves: My Cancer Care Cats (by Sheryle Cruse, Guest Blogger)

It seems that many of us have pets. Pets that we love. Pets that are part of our family. Pets that have been there for us through the tough times in life . . . such as a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. We have some great stories for you about pets and their impact on our health in this blog series, Our Pets, Our Selves. In today’s blog, Sheryle Cruse shares the story of her two cats – Glory and Gracie – and how they impacted her breast cancer experience – and her life!

My Cancer Care Cats (By Sheryle Cruse)

Cats, by nature, think and feel in a cat-centric way, quite contrary to how people express who they are, and yes, how they love. And, while they don’t display our human version of love, they still have the capacity to connect with us, to bond with us. Yeah, maybe that’s it. Cats may not love as we love, but they do bond with us. Breast cancer has showed me that.

At the time of my diagnosis, my husband and I had two cats, Gracie and Glory. Adopted from a shelter, years earlier, we had some on-the-job training with them, a heavy dose in dealing with the Calico strain of cat. Calicoes have the reputation for being difficult, “feisty.” High-strung.

Our Glory is a traditional Calico, possessing the tri-colored coat of white, black and orange. Personality-wise, I liken her to that of Joan Jett in demeanor. Get the picture?

Gracie is known as a Diluted Calico, or “Tortie.” That means that her tri-color coat is muted. To use fashion terms, if Glory was coloring blocking, then Gracie was pastels. She had this grey/lavender quality to her fur, with swirls of peach highlights blended in. Temperament-wise, Gracie was friendlier. More curious. Playful. She cuddled with me more than Glory. How much of that was her personality and how much of that was her Skinny Minnie body, craving heat sources anywhere she could get them, I cannot say for sure.

Once I was diagnosed with Breast cancer, our cats’ behaviors shifted. Glory, already gun-shy in nature, became increasingly more withdrawn.

Gracie, however, glommed onto me. My stress levels were high while I was going through testing and treatment. By the time I had my bilateral mastectomy, she made it her mission to “pin” me as much as she could while I was recovering. Once I made it to the couch, it was a matter of minutes before I felt her tiny feet stepping on me and “kneading.”

(For those of you not in the know, “kneading” is a common cat behavior, exhibited by kittens “milk treading” their mothers; they would purr, knead and express contentment as they nursed, conveying to Mama Cat, “I’m getting my needs met.” Animal experts regard this behavior as a kind of nostalgia, hearkening back to those kitten times. Cats don’t outgrow this behavior and will knead all of their adult lives).

Gracie, initially, tried to sit directly onto my bandaged chest, a definite, off-limits area of my body now. And I was especially anxious that she’d view my grenade-looking drains, attached to me in a sci-fi way, as her cat toys.

As I was sequestered to the couch, Gracie kept veering toward my chest. I’d move her to my legs or lift her, as much as my weak T-Rex arms could lift, onto the top of the couch.

Once, from that position, she decided to jump to the floor, using my chest as her diving board.


Eventually, and I do say eventually, the two of us “negotiated” her sitting on top of my legs. She’d jump up, do a few clockwise turns, kneading and adjusting a comfy nook to her specifications, purring. She’d pin me all night and/or for as long as she could. It was uncomfortable, yes. My legs often fell asleep. But, hey, at least my chest was uninhabited.

And, when I was not connected to the couch, her whole modus operandi was to pin me back onto it. She followed me everywhere.

This continued with my course of radiation. Now, things intensified. Here, she became my “Radiation Buddy.” Gracie was obsessed with sticking close to me. During my 30-day treatment, I’d lie down and rest as long as I could until my appointment. She’d park herself on my legs, purring, sleeping, or watching me closely to make sure I stayed put. When I had to go to my appointment, she anxiously followed me around. It’s like she knew I was leaving and she absolutely hated that fact. A few times, I heard her crying three flights down, once I left our apartment. That broke my heart. When I returned from each radiation session, she was miffed, but still ever-focused on making sure I’m pinned again. She was happiest when I was immobilized and she could see I was doing nothing but lying on the couch, under her, for hours.

I was concerned with Gracie’s behavior. So much so, I called our vet. She had nothing definitive, other than, “she wants to protect you.”

Yeah, I realize that. But why?

Finally, I asked my radiation nurse, who told me I was emitting a stress hormone during radiation.

So, that’s what it was, a stress hormone?

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t shut off my stress hormone and how I was emitting it. I cuddled with Gracie, spoke lovingly to her and gave her extra treats. She still seemed clingy. She wanted to be near or on top of me all of the time. I didn’t know what to do about that.

Gracie behaved like this until a few months later. She started vomiting grey pools of liquid and was lethargic. After numerous vet visits, we placed her on a regimen of antibiotics, steroids and painkillers and kept at it for a month.  She was struggling, in pain. She’d often wake me up, screaming her terrified feline scream, with wild eyes, desperate for relief. She kept me up all night, night after night, acting this way. It was agony. Gracie wasn’t getting better, despite efforts, medicine, prayers. My little radiation buddy. It wasn’t working. No, not now. Why now? But there is never a good time to lose someone you love.

My husband and I contacted an in-home euthanasia service and, on one painful Saturday morning, we said good bye. Devastation.

Losing Gracie was worse than losing my breasts. I would rather have her back than those body parts.

Grieving her over a year later has been transition for us. Grief has shifted things, especially with Glory. Now, she has taken over from Gracie’s duty. She’s surprised us. Again, she’s Joan Jett, not a cuddle baby. But cuddling, pinning and obsessing about me is what she’s doing these days. And, like Gracie, I worry if I’m stressing her out. Quite frankly, I wonder if her reactions concerning my cancer situation could kill her.

Still, now, Glory is teaching me about self-care, as I’m currently in “survivorship.” She regularly commandeers my lap, demanding I rest. Pet her. Be present. No, I don’t need to do anything else right now. Just be. She cuddles with me, at least, until she believes I’m well rested enough. Every day. She often sits on me while I write, with her head draped over my left arm. This is the same cat, who has been so fearful, so withdrawn, so hostile, that, during her checkups, she has drawn blood from vet techs, veterinarians, my husband and me. She becomes a Hell cat. She refuses to be messed with.

So, her cuddlier, softer moments are unhinging. Why is she like this? Just Narcissistic, mercenary, self-interested, feline behavior…  or is it something else? Does she know something? Can she sense my physical condition? Can she smell cancer? Does she know I’m dying? Is she frightened for me?

Or, does she “love” me? We are bonded, perhaps, trauma bonded, but bonded, all the same.

Glory is teaching me about self-care during this post-diagnosis era. Breast cancer got my attention. I can no longer ignore my life. Glory is instructing me about how to be ferocious about it. I am to be ruthless. I am to swipe claws if I need to. I’m to take care of myself with no apologies. It is that important.

The bond we have with animals can be life-giving, life sustaining. Cliché stuff remains true: comfort, support, companionship. I firmly believe there is a depth of purpose to each of us, pets included, confounding explanation.

As I make my way through this cancer experience, I have discovered Gracie and Glory are, indeed, those confounding- and wonderful- beings.

Copyright © 2019 by Sheryle Cruse

Author/ speaker Sheryle Cruse focuses extensively on disordered food, weight and body image issues, including her book, “Thin Enough: My Spiritual Journey Through the Living Death of an Eating Disorder” and in recovery-based publications, like “In Recovery Magazine.” However, since Cruse’s 2017 Breast cancer diagnosis, she now turns her attention to this issue, all from the perspective that the diagnosed woman is valid in making whatever choices she desires concerning her treatment. Her article, “The Diagnosed Caregiver” will be published in The Summer 2019 issue of “Christian Living in the Mature Years Magazine.”

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