Listen to this story
If I mention to people I’m a cancer survivor, if they don’t have personal experience or have witnessed a loved one they often ask what it’s like.
I have a standard answer. I threw up a lot and napped. Then I tell them the story about my cat.
Its 6:00 am. I’ve had my period for nineteen days. I’ve been vomiting for six. I’m wedged in between the toilet and the bathtub. My cat is standing in the bathroom doorway watching me as I throw up.
There are eight cats in our family and Nico is their leader. She’s unstoppable. She preys on birds and bats and chases dogs. She’s introverted like I am. She runs off when people approach her. She protects our home and nurtures the others.
Somehow she’s always known when I’m at my lowest and sticks by me. As our eyes meet that morning in the bathroom I’d like to believe we’re thinking the same thing- I’m late for work.
I want so badly to get up but I can’t. I’m weak and feel frustrated. Something inside my body is reaching out for help. If this is menopause it’s not for me. Yeah, no. Surely there must be a pill to fix it?
Nico walks over and rubs up against me. I reach for my cellphone and call the Doctor’s office to schedule an appointment.
The day of my appointment I explain to the doctor I’m experiencing what I assume are ‘normal’ symptoms of menopause. Vomiting, menstruating so immensely I’m peeing red, loss of appetite, lack of energy, and sore breasts all month.
I’m stuck in a permanent state of PMS.
None of that is normal, she informs me. She writes up an order for a series of tests and instructs me not to leave the medical center until we have all the results.
Six hours later I meet with her again. She hands me a prescription. I’m confused.
What do I need Xanax for?
Your CA 125 is elevated. The tumor ruptured the ovary.
You mean cancer, right?
Xanax is gonna fix it?
I drift away. The walls close in on me. The doctor shrinks into the florescent lighting. I catch waves of what she’s saying. Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, check. OBGYN Surgeon, check. Oncologist, check. She hands me two more prescriptions and I leave her office.
I stop in the pharmacy and have the three prescriptions filled with no intentions of ever taking the Xanax. I arrive home and decide to do what anyone in denial would do. I curl up with Nico and take a nap.
One week later I’m admitted into the hospital to have surgery and I’m discharged 48 hours later. I need two weeks of bed rest at home until my follow up appointment with the surgeon. I have 60 internal stitches and four incisions in my abdomen and pelvic area.
It’s a four month recovery period. Nico lays with me the entire time pressed up against me, purring day and night. In a sense I’m living the dream laying around high on pain meds while collecting paid time off from work but the two weeks of bed rest pass and I’m eager to move on.
I plead with the doctor to allow me to return to work. She agrees to no more than four hours a day in the office with restricted physical activity. I’m permitted only ten minutes of walking per day.
It’s my first day back to work and my four hour schedule is booked. Patients come in and out of my office, one after the other, dumping their crisis and sorrows, and complaining I’d been gone for so long. I leave feeling drained, the life sucked out of me. The weight of their negativity exhausts me. I go home. Nico and I curl up and pass out for seven hours.
When we wake I decide to take my ten minute walk. I’m still in a great deal of pain. I move slowly down the sidewalk. I hear a piercing meow in the distance behind me. It’s Nico yelling for me to wait so she can catch up. She and I spend the next four months taking short walks together.
I’ve started treatment and I’m now back in the bathroom throwing up. Nico is standing in the doorway watching me again. I’d like to believe we’re thinking the same thing- I’m getting better. She walks over and rubs up against me. I hug the bowl as I attempt to catch my breath.
The treatment is brutal and I look forward each day to coming home to Nico waiting for me. She pushes me to keep going. My muscles are weak, I’m sleeping fifteen hours a day, my thoughts are hazy and every bite of food is forced down my throat with each swallow.
I’m in a routine of surviving. I wake up, go to work for four hours, come home and sleep until dinner time, eat dinner with my family, Nico and I go for our walk and then I go back to bed for the night. I take my medication five times a day and go to treatment three days a week.
One day I come home and as I approach my back door there’s Nico laying on the ground badly injured. I yell inside to my kids. We all get in the car and rush Nico to the animal hospital. It’s the first time Nico lost a battle with a dog. As I sit in the exam room with her and the kids it’s a challenge for me to hold my weary body up but I refuse to leave her. I lean my arm on the table and rest my head in my hand. When I pick my head up a clump of hair floats through the air and sinks down towards the floor.
The veterinarian says Nico needs surgery and to spend a couple of days in the hospital.
Away from me?
She’ll be okay.
I’m not sure I will.
Before this moment I would have said It’s just a cat but in the face of the moment there is no way I could go on without her. She’s my family. She’s dedicated herself to healing me and I need to do the same.
We bring her home. My heart sinks to see my strong willed Nico in this condition. I’m devastated. She needs constant care. The side of her long, stealthy body is shaved and stitched. There’s a drainage tube sprouting from her surgical site. She’s drugged and can’t stand on her feet.
The other cats know Nico is wounded. They want to be close to her but the veterinarian says to keep them away. She’s in my bedroom with me and separated from them. I can hear them clawing at the door, howling, calling to her. I lay her in my bed next to me and cry. I know how the others feel. I begin to panic convinced I’ll never beat cancer without her.
I finally take a Xanax.