In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.
By Adriana Ermter
I lost my cat, Trixie-Belle. She died from a squamous cell carcinoma, an aggressive type of mouth cancer, one week before the winter holidays last year. There was nothing my veterinarian could do to save her. She simply woke up one morning with a spot on the roof of her mouth and then, after performing every possible examination and a round of drugs, she was gone.
I think about her every single day. Sometimes I see her too, you know, in a shadow in the living room or curled up in her softie bed at the end of the couch, her head bent backwards with her sassy tortie face looking up at me as she offered an outstretched paw with a little purr-meow. At night when I’m sleeping, I can feel her fluffy body spooning next to me on the bed like it’s real, that is, until I reach over to wrap my arm around her and remember. I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been rough. Missing her is visceral, emotions I feel deep inside of me. Trixie wasn’t just a cat or a pet or a companion. She was my love. She was also my support system during breast cancer.
Choosing your Support
Throughout my entire breast cancer experience I was an outpatient, someone who did not have to stay in hospital after my surgery or during radiation treatment. Since I live in Toronto and my entire family lives in Calgary, I went through breast cancer alone. While my mom offered to come and care for me after my surgery, I declined, explaining that I would be worried about her wellbeing and ability to get around the city easily if we needed anything. So I suggested she come afterwards while I underwent radiation treatment.
My younger sister Alida, however, surprised me by saying she was booking a flight and coming for a week to take care of me post-surgery and she did. I will forever be grateful to her for leaving her young family to come and cook my breakfast, lunch and dinner, give me pain meds, walk with me one slow step at a time to the corner and back, make single portions of soup and put them in the freezer, tell me to go to bed or to have a nap and generally boss me around. It was exactly what I needed. After she left, I had friends who checked in regularly, but my mainstay was my cat, Trixie who never left my side and gave me a huge amount of comfort and love.
Finding and having this support during breast cancer, whether it’s a sister, mom, friend or a beloved pet is crucial to your mental and physical health. They provide comfort and continuity through an ever-changing and more often than not, frightening time. But the point is that you get to choose. You get to pick who you want beside you, day in and day out and there is no right or wrong choice. Had I still been married to my husband, he would’ve been it, but since I was single I chose Trixie. Maybe that seems weird or perhaps it doesn’t, either way it doesn’t really matter. Choosing my cat worked for me and I make no apologies for it.
The Benefits of Having a Pet When You’re Ill
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I was newly divorced and living alone. My diagnosis was unexpected and shocking. Not only did I not meet the breast cancer criteria (I wasn’t 50 years or older, I had no familial history, I did not have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene nor had I had radiation therapy or a previous cancer diagnosis), but six months prior, I’d been told that the lump I’d felt in my right armpit was nothing. After being diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, I left the hospital clinic in shock, called my sisters, walked back to work, confided in a colleague, went to a lounge after work with said colleague and despite drinking three vodka martinis remained sober, came home and sat in my green, velvet chair with Trixie on my lap for over an hour. She never budged.
For the next 18 months, Trixie was my daily, loving, point of contact. As a tortoiseshell she was already possessive of me, her chosen human, yet throughout my cancer diagnosis, surgery, treatment, recovery and daily dose of Tamoxifen she became even more so. When I alternated between sleeping in bed and lying on the couch, she followed closely behind. When I meditated in the mornings she would sprawl across my heart and belly or curl up next to my face, watching me through half open eyes. The times when friends would stop by with a home-cooked meal or for a visit, she’d patiently lay next to me until she’d felt my friends overstayed their welcome and then, would get up, stretch, walk over to the friend and sit directly in front of them staring them down. If Trixie could’ve talked she would have said: Time’s up, get out. Her loyalty and dedication to me was profound.
I believe everyone dealing with cancer needs this kind of unconditional love, even if it comes in furry form. It reassures you that you are not alone. It soothes your soul and offers peace of mind. It gives you another person’s or a pet’s life to focus on beyond your own so that you don’t become so enveloped in cancer that your life becomes small and limited. While I never cried about having breast cancer, I did express my feelings out loud all the time. If Trixie hadn’t been there, this would have felt hollow and meaningless. Sure, she was a chatty cat and would periodically meow back, but I wasn’t looking for answers, I just needed someone to listen and she did that for me.
Dealing with the Loss
When I first met Trixie, she’d been a skinny little kitten with a string of a tail, found on the streets and rescued by Abbey Cat Adoptions. After applying for the adoption, screened for suitability and accepted, the organization brought Trixie to my home. When the cat carrier door opened, Trixie looked straight into my eyes, walked towards me without hesitation and flopped into my lap, as the woman from Abbey Cats exclaimed she’d never seen Trixie so drawn to anyone before. Trixie and I claimed each other that day.
Over the 16 years we shared, Trixie participated in girls’ nights at our apartment, vocalized which friends she liked (some), loved (few), tolerated (many). She met the men I dated, embraced the man I fell in love with and married, chose sides (mine) when we separated and let me ugly cry into her fur for too many months as he and I divorced. As opinionated as she was, when we moved out of the only home she’d ever known and into our condo, Trixie accepted it immediately and slept with me on the floor the first night before the bed arrived. Her presence made our space feel like a home.
Funny and smart, sassy and sweet, Trixie also had a million facial expressions belying her every mood and thought. Many times during my cancer journey when I was too tired to watch television or to read, but in too much pain to sleep, she’d stretch out next to me purring loudly with a content look on her face. The sound and her presence soothed me. Perhaps most importantly, when I was at the height of my treatment, exhausted, nauseous and blinded with headaches, she became my reason to get up and carry on with my life. Through loving her unconditionally, I learned to be more patient with and to love myself, even as I struggled to accept and overcome the changes breast cancer created.
It has been almost eight months now and I don’t know if I’ll ever have another cat-affair like Trixie’s again. Recently though, I adopted two kittens that I named Murphy and Olive. I love them with my whole heart. It’s a different kind of love than what I felt for Trixie, but it is solid, real and strong. They’re my family now. Living up to the wonderful legacy Trixie left behind.
Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Figure Skater Fitness and IN Magazine, as well as online at 29Secrets.com, RethinkBreastCancer.ca, Popsugar.com and AmongMen.com. The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her two very spoiled rescue kittens, Murphy and Olive. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter