Pets, Responsibilities, and the Lung Cancer Patient
When I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, I was quickly asked by more than a few people if I would be getting rid of my cats. They are dirty, I was told, and my immune system would be compromised. They need to be fed and taken to the vet and cleaned up after, I was reminded, and my time and energy would be at a premium. It would have been easier to give them away. And perhaps if my situation was different that would have been the right choice — but for me, and especially for my family, the added hardship of pet ownership has been very worthwhile.
Pets play an important role
True, there have been a few times when the added stress of a sick cat has added an unwelcome burden. There have been unforeseen messes to clean at inopportune times. And I have gone through lengthy phases where certain odors — of which the litter box provided more than a few — were virtually intolerable for me. Yet, I wanted to take care of these animals. It had special meaning for me, as a patient who at times was barely able to fend for himself in very basic ways, to take care of something else.
While my wife worked double duty as our household provider and primary caregiver, I was able to rise to the responsibilities of garden and pets. And I needed that, to feel that I was not powerless, to feel that I could be in charge of something. It made me stronger, or at least helped me be a contributing part of the family.
And the cats played another significant role for me, as well: their mere presence helped reduce anxiety and depression. When talking about palliative care, the discussion often hinges on drugs or physical activities, but the companionship of a pet may provide some of the same benefits.
Comfort in tough times
My whole family gained from pet ownership. Undergoing chemotherapy, there were undeniably times when I was emotionally unavailable. The cats, however, were always there to cuddle. They were a stable go-to while I was an emotional rollercoaster thanks to my steroids.
Because of the society we live in, and the fact that I was fortunate enough not to be hospitalized, I spent a good deal of time alone in the house; my child was at school and my wife was at work. It would have been easy for me to slip into moments of despair. Especially on days when I was relegated to the couch, having a warm, furry, little companion curl up with me was a much-needed comfort. Even just having a hamster or fish in the house helped to prevent loneliness from sinking in too deep. (And yes, I did imagine a bond developed between myself and a beta that I kept in my office. I swear she had a special fish dance that she performed only for me when I came over to talk with her.)
Staying rooted in the positive aspects of life
The responsibilities of pet ownership did, at times, seem particularly heavy. The burden of vet bills felt harsher on top of medical co-pays for my cancer treatment. The routine of feeding and cleaning up after the cats could be tedious — even something I would dread. But with the routine came a feeling of stability, a sense of the ordinary, that had been lost with that thing we euphemistically refer to as our “new normal.”
I have taken steps to protect my health, such as washing my hands more frequently, vacuuming often, and keeping the cats as clean as possible. We disinfect surfaces regularly, segregate the litter box as much as possible, and otherwise make cleanliness a priority. And I know that there may be a time down the road when my health might require a change in perspective on what pets are a good choice for me.
For now, however, I feel that they offer me a good balance of grounding me in a routine and offering me a responsibility that I can successfully provide. This engenders a sense of pride that years of chemotherapy threatened to take away. And the emotional engagement I have with my pets, however one-sided it may be at times, helps keep me rooted in the positive aspects of living.