Some fifteen years ago I was at a meeting of the Hibiscus Coast Breast Cancer Support Group, when an elderly lady in her 80’s joined our meeting . She looked small and frail, and privately most of us though how unfair it was that this lovely lady should be faced with going through treatment for breast cancer at her time of life. Then she shared her story with us.
Her diagnosis, surgery and treatment, she told us, had happened some thirty years ago. This really resonated with me, as my own mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer and had her treatment at much the same time, and passed away in 1975. This was back in the days when surgery involved taking all the breast tissue, right back to the chest wall. Not a pretty sight, believe me. I remembered how much my mother-in-law had hated what passed for a prosthesis back then, a blob of rubber that was simply pushed into the bra, and hopefully stayed there. My mother-in-law was a fit active woman in her mid-forties, and she hated the way this prosthesis was likely to jump out of her bra whenever she took a swing at a tennis ball, or leapt for a netball catch.
What I was not expecting was this lady’s view on life as a breast cancer patient back in the mid 70’s.
Back then, she said, cancer was hugely feared and largely misunderstood, with the result that she found even her nearest and dearest friends would discreetly pull their skirts aside if she moved too close to them. She didn’t pass judgement, she well understood their fear that it might be catching but she did express how hugely lonely her life became as she went through the worst experience of her life feeling like she no longer had a friend in the world.
Her husband was with her every step of her cancer journey, she said, and was marvellous in looking after her, but she also credited her dog for getting her through the loneliest most frightening time of her life. He would simply sit with her when she was feeling lonely or down, never asked intrusive questions and when he knew she was feeling low he would lay his head on her lap and stay there until she was feeling better. She said without her dog, she did not think she would have made it out alive from her cancer treatment.
Knowing the statistics for a 30 year cure from breast cancer back in the 70’s, I think she made a very good point.
It occurred to all of us in the group, listening to her: how lucky were we? In the 70's there was nothing in the way of support available for what was a frightening and lonely experience.
Nobody to talk to about what was happening to her and what might lie ahead, and nobody for her husband to talk to either, to air his worry for her future, and his too if the worst happened. Nobody to give them tips on where to find parking at the hospital, or the best way to secure a wayward prosthesis.
Breast Cancer Support was a godsend for me, going through the process myself 25 years after my mother-in-law had done. Parking was one of my initial worries: with only a few free spaces in Auckland Hospital's carpark for a days-worth of chemo and radiotherapy patients, where could we find a space?
A cheerful lady at my first meeting, a bright turban covering her lack of hair, said helpfully, "Park in the Domain, enjoy the walk up, and treat yourself to a well earned ice cream on the way back." And suddenly a worrying hurdle early on in my experience was not only manageable, but actually enjoyable. Today, twenty years on, I am still grateful for BCS's help in getting me through a pretty scary experience.
Returning to the subject of pets ... pets are known to be highly therapeutic. Just the action of patting a pet is soothing and calming, there is no pressure to do anything more than enjoy the physical contact. Their needs (or their yowling) give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Having to walk a dog gets you out of the house, and with any luck meeting people who are more likely to ask “What’s his name?” than - "How ARE you?” Having to get up in the dark on a cold winters morning to walk your dog before going to work or off for a treatment can be the best way in the world to start an otherwise gloomy day.
While going through cancer treatment is probably not a good time to rush out to the pet shop, if you have one already, appreciate and enjoy all the benefits your pet will happily give you.