A faithful, furry pet may benefit both your emotional and physical health while undergoing breast cancer treatment.
Having a faithful companion can help you through the toughest times of living with cancer. Most people think that means a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse, but the same can be said about a pet.
I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer on July 1, 2016. I went through 1 year of treatment — surgery, chemo, and radiation followed by years of estrogen therapy. That 1 year was the worst, as many of you probably know, because not only are you dealing with the effects and logistics of treatment, but you’re also educating yourself about the disease.
Enter your furry companion. For me, it was my cat, Mink. Mink was a rare breed, a Chocolate Persian, I found as a stray many years ago. My husband trapped her and she was almost feral, but after 2 weeks of feeding her tuna under my bed, she finally allowed me to pet her. From then on, she (and I) was hooked.
Mink was extremely loyal and needy. We had a mutually loving relationship. She was a lap cat and most satisfied when she was sitting on my left thigh. Though I had cats previous to her, she was definitely one of my most special. Toward the end of her life, she went blind, but she was always there for me.
She actually got cancer around the same time I did: lymphoma. I’m a poet, and I wrote a poem about the experience, titled “The Last Toy.”
Mink was my faithful companion up until I had to put her down. I swore I wouldn’t get any other cats, but 2 weeks later, I was online looking for Persian kittens. I ended up getting Squirt, a tabby, silver-haired Persian, and her uncle, Tobee. Tobee had a rare heart condition, hypertrophic myopathy, and sadly, he eventually had a heart attack. Then I got Rumble, an Exotic Shorthair, who runs around often and is by far the most curious cat I’ve ever had.
A pet’s love can work magic.
I am used to now feeding Rumble and Squirt wet cat food first thing in the morning, then at night when I get home from work. As they say, “food is love,” and the cats are devoted to me because I feed them (though that’s not the only reason).
With cats or other pets, you learn responsibility. You have to do things like feed your pets, change their litter box (or take your dog on a walk), and pay for grooming. You’re always aware that they depend on you 100% for their survival.
This awareness is what I would call love and helps one find a deeper purpose, deeper than the horror of cancer.
According to a 2019 review, pet ownership, and in particular pet therapy, may have both emotional and physical health benefits for people with cancer. I couldn’t agree more.
But some people are concerned that owning a pet during cancer treatment can affect someone negatively, especially people who are immunocompromised. Breast cancer and chemotherapy can weaken the immune system and make it easier to get certain illnesses, including ones that animals carry.
There’s nothing like having a cat come up to you and press against your leg when you’re depressed, requesting to be petted.
There are certain animals where this risk is higher than others. This includes animals like reptiles, chickens, ducks, hamsters, and gerbils. It’s best to love them from a distance, just like we all stayed 6 feet away from humans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are some other considerations to stay safe and protect your health while undergoing treatment. According to the American Cancer Society, you should avoid very close contact with pets during treatment, including kissing, snuggling, or sleeping in the same bed as your pet. They also suggest not taking in a stray animal while you’re in treatment.
You should also avoid being around pets that bite or scratch, and be extra cautious when cleaning up vomit, feces, or urine to prevent the possibility of infection.
When my sister’s new husband was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer, she decided to get a puppy for him. He picked out the Tibetan Mastiff breed. They found a breeder and adopted a puppy before it was born. The dog is now fully grown and an important part of their family.
Indeed, pets can become a very integral part of a family. If you’re close to your dog or cat, it may even seem like they can sense when you’re happy or sad, and provide affection that can cheer you up. There’s nothing like having a cat come up to you and press against your leg when you’re depressed, requesting to be petted. Or, a dog’s familiar welcoming bark when you come home. A pet’s love can work magic.
I would argue that if you have a loving relationship with your pet, and you follow common sense, you shouldn’t have to give up your animals during treatment or have someone else take care of them. You should be able to benefit from their wonderful gifts of love and affection. And who knows — perhaps their constant love and presence can help in your recovery.
Medically reviewed on March 02, 2023
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