The Goddess Speaks

By Jan H. Chouljian

Tuesday, November 16, 1999

Pet therapy helps
the healing

It was a typical medical examination room -- sterile, small and, at the moment, cramped with a doctor, several nurses, a couple of friends and a bleary-eyed patient.

The patient was me. The doctor was an oncologist who, for the past two hours, had been trying to help me make a decision about chemotherapy. At 37, I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

As the jargon swirled overhead, all I wanted was to be at home, hugging my feline roommate. This delightful, mischievous cat named Poni (Hawaiian for purple) had moved with me from Hawaii to Washington, D.C. She was the only one who could possibly understand how I got into this mess.

The year 1997 had all started so well. After eight satisfying years working as a veterinarian (the majority of the time in Hawaii), I had decided to take a different path.

I had always been interested in the potential of veterinary medicine at the international level. With lofty aspirations, I applied for and was accepted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science Program for a two-year stint, working as a technical advisor to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Delighted with my good fortune of joining a prestigious group of 75 Ph.D. professionals from around the country, I moved everything from Kailua to our nation's capitol.

My most previous cargo was Poni, adopted from the Hawaiian Humane Society several years previously, a talkative and sleek white creature with a gray mask on her pretty face.

As a veterinarian, I had confidently reassured countless clients about flying their pets to the mainland. Now I was a nervous wreck, worrying about whether the cat carrier arriving at Washington National Airport would contain only a limp rag that was formerly a cat. But Poni made the trip with typical feline ease and aplomb.

Washington was a major change for both of us. Previously an indoor/outdoor cat, Poni had dutifully kept my place purged of geckos, and the lanai toad-free. She spent countless hours skipping between neighbors' roofs, playing with slugs in the garden and tormenting mynah birds.

Now she was an urban cat; lots of windows to gaze from but no hunting, maiming or killing of wildlife. She adjusted remarkably well.

It was also a huge change for me. I traded in my zori and muumuu for the power suit, high heels and stockings typical of the Washington set. I packed away my stethoscope and veterinary textbooks, and tenaciously learned as many acronyms as possible, so I could hold my own at meetings. I constantly delighted at seeing the Lincoln Memorial lit up at night.

In short, things were going swimmingly. That is, until I found the lump. These days, every woman over 40 dreads finding a malignant lump in her breast.

I found one under my right arm and immediately knew it was an enlarged lymph node and that it wasn't normal. Unfortunately, it required three months and countless medical visitors to get the proper diagnosis.

So that's how I ended up at Georgetown's Lombardi Cancer Center on the last day of 1997, listening to survival statistics and discussing which of the various chemotherapy clinical trials would be best.

Three experts gave three different opinions. I agonized for days until I realized that I didn't really have much control of my life anymore and that I had to opt for the most aggressive of my choices. For someone who had been an active athlete with a healthy diet and lifestyle, cancer was a shocking diagnosis.

It is commonly said that cancer or any life-threatening illness brings out the best and the worse in people. I agree. Some friends rose to the occasion; others I never heard from again.

In contrast, cancer seems to always bring out the best in animals. This is confirmed by my own experience and by those of other cancer survivors. Pets just seem to instinctively know that the best thing they can do is "be there." Somehow, they realize that this is one of the most precious gifts for someone facing cancer.

In January 1998, I started a long, difficult course of chemotherapy. Every other Thursday for six months, I would receive either Adriamycin, Taxol or Cytoxan. Forty-eight hours later, I predictably felt like I'd been smashed by a truck.

Poni was amazingly gentle during these rough times. Instead of pouncing onto my lap, she would quietly sit beside me and daintily press a paw to my leg. She would maintain paw contact for hours.

When I melted onto the sofa, Poni would gracefully cuddle up with me. And when I finally recovered from surgery, she resumed her regular post sprawled on my chest, her nose within inches of mine.

As the six months of chemo wore on, I lost all my hair -- not simply the hair on my head as I had been warned but every single strand of hair on my body.

While this shocked some people, it didn't faze Poni a bit. She loved me, whether I was bald as a billiard ball or with waist-length raven tresses. She got hold of my wig once and it was rather comical watching her try to get a rise out of this new furry animal.

Most of the time, I hurt too much to do anything; didn't have the concentration or attention-span to read; wasn't interested in TV; had distinct aversions to food; and lived only for the hugs and companionship of friends.

I also had endless "why me?" conversations with my cat. She was patient and listened but also knew when it was time to stop the endless chatter in my head by amusing me. She would race around our apartment -- rearranging carpets, skidding around on the polished wooden floors and whacking pens and chocolate kisses under the sofa.

In trying to distract me, I felt like she was reminding me that, as bleak as it all felt, life would go on.

I was alone much of the time. Friends had full-time careers, family members were far away but that cat stayed at my side. When I stumbled in and out of the bathtub, she was always there. It took too much energy to stand in the shower, so I'd fill the tub, soak awhile with Poni sitting on the ledge, slapping at the shower curtain with her paw. When my strength returned, I'd get out of the tub and back into my sweats, Poni always nearby but never underfoot.

I often wondered what she would have done if I had slipped and hit my head on some porcelain, knocking myself out cold. I'm sure she had a plan for this but, thankfully, we never had to test it.

On some days, I felt too weak to even get out of bed. Poni would keep vigil, sitting at attention on my bedside table, watching me for hours. Sometimes, her staring at me would wake me.

After chemotherapy was pau, I had 6-1/2 weeks of daily radiation therapy. I felt tired all the time. Everything took 100 percent more effort than it used to. But there came a time when my cat angel decided that all this huddling in bed was not such a good thing, so she started various cat antics to encourage me to get up.

At first, she would start with the Walk-About. She would circle around me, occasionally darting over me, then start kneading various parts of my body with her forepaws. If this didn't elicit a response, she would move onto Plan B, which was sitting on top of my head and tickling my ears with her tongue. It was a gentle push to get out of bed and get on with my life.

It has now been almost a year since I finished treatment. December will be the second anniversary of my diagnosis. Thankfully, I am still cancer-free. And I still have Poni at my side, delicately trying to get her paws on the computer as I write this.

While chemotherapy and radiation therapy may have rid me of the cancer, my four-footed therapist has saved my life.

Jan Chouljian, a 1978 Punahou graduate, has been
a breast cancer survivor for nearly two years and is working on a book
on pet therapy. She continues to live in Washington, D.C.,
with four-footed therapist, Poni.

The Goddess Speaks runs every Tuesday
and is a column by and about women, our strengths, weaknesses,
quirks and quandaries. If you have something to say, write it and
send it to: The Goddess Speaks, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, P.O.
Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802, or send e-mail

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