Paws and Purrs: How to Be Loved by a Cat



Yes, They Make Their Own Decisions

It goes without saying that admiring her incomparable beauty is the first step toward getting any cat to love you. Next, you might try some respectful adoration. And it’s advisable to bear in mind at all times that cats are not dogs. One hesitates to make generalizations about any species, but cats are not slavishly motivated to please you, as dogs often are. They don’t necessarily like to ride in cars or fetch your slippers. A lot of cats don’t even like to be picked up and hugged. When they choose to love you, they do, in their own way. But they don’t, as a rule, jump up to greet you and lick your face. There are exceptions, of course. Once, when I visited my friend who runs the local animal shelter, I ended up adopting a cat who, upon my opening his crate to say hello, stood up on his hind legs, put his front paws around my neck, and licked my face. I wasn’t planning to adopt a cat just then, but what choice did I have after such a greeting? However, that is another story for another post.

This post is about Fiona. I first met Fiona in 2009, about a year after I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, Fiona was eight years old, and was, I was told, a dilute, or muted, tortoiseshell, something I never knew existed. She lived with a neighbor who had herself recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. My neighbor was already disabled and was trying to simplify her rather chaotic home. She had three small dogs who were adorable, but not particularly well-behaved or nice to cats. She also had three cats, who had established a strict pecking order, with poor Fiona at the bottom. Between the yappy, aggressive dogs who chased her, and the other two cats who bullied her, Fiona was a very frightened, unhappy girl who spent most of her time hiding in a small storage room. My neighbor had a heart of gold, but not necessarily the wisdom to realize that she ought perhaps to have stopped adopting pets at one of each. She did, however, realize that Fiona was miserable and asked me if I would adopt her. At the time, I had one cat, a shy, inoffensive black Persian male named Jett, and Foxy, a gentle, old, Nordic mix dog who happened to love cats. So, I agreed to take Fiona home.

Fiona emerges from under the bed.

The first thing I did was to let poor Fiona have her own room until she felt equal to meeting any new animals. She spent the first several hours of that first day hiding under the guest room bed, but by the afternoon, she began to emerge when I visited her. It took a few days for her to brave the rest of the house, but when she did, she soon discovered that Jett only wanted a mother substitute for my cat Chloe, who’d fulfilled that role until she died earlier that year. And Foxy was savvy enough to keep his distance, and approach gradually, until Fiona realized he wouldn’t bark at her or chase her.

Within weeks, Fiona was relaxed and happy. Her amazingly soft fur was even fluffier, and she now slept with the rest of us on the bed at night. She and Jett would usually bracket me while I slept, with Foxy at the foot of the bed, facing the door as he always did at night to guard us against potential marauders. Eventually, Fiona even snuggled up with Foxy for the odd nap.

Five weeks after Fiona moved in, I ended up adopting another cat, a gray and white tail-less Manx named Teddy, who was twice as big as Fiona and Jett. It wasn’t the best timing ever, but I’d promised another friend that, if she ended up having to live in a nursing home, I would take Teddy in. Well, she did, and I did. I was worried about how Fiona would react, but she clearly felt she had the upper hand, since she was there first. Poor Teddy, on the other hand, had never lived with any other animals before, so he won the guest room for a while until he learned that it was not acceptable to boss around the other cats, and that it wasn’t entirely horrifying to live with a dog. It all worked out. After all, I was the human, it was my house, and my rules. Everyone got loved, and I didn’t put up with any nonsense. If Teddy needed any further convincing, Fiona flipped all twenty pounds of him on his back one day right into the water dish when he got a bit rambunctious. He behaved himself after that.

Shy little Jett preferred to sit beside me, but not on my lap. Teddy liked to be picked up and hugged when I came home, but mostly, he liked to lie on his back, displaying his white tummy in hopes that someone, anyone, would rub it. Fiona became my lap cat. She hated being picked up, but if I left her to her own advances, she would hop into my lap or onto the table whenever I was using a computer. Thus, she appointed herself my blogging assistant. A close-up from this photo became my Gravatar icon, and shows up whenever I comment on a blog. Indeed, she became an all-around champion snuggler, attaching herself to some part of my body when I was sleeping, reading, having my morning coffee, or checking my email. She had a particularly endearing habit of draping herself on my arm in bed, and tucking her face into my hand. My Facebook friends have seen ample evidence over the years of her snuggling talents. Here are a few illustrative photos.

Change Happens

Early in 2010, sweet little Jett died of an abscessed tooth combined with old age. Later that year, in November, I had to make the awful choice to let Foxy go, after watching him suffer with advancing arthritis, increasingly painful mobility, and confusion caused by dementia. A few years later, Teddy succumbed to feline infectious peritonitis. It was heartbreaking to lose each one of them, but it helped that I still had a fur baby or two to comfort me after each loss.

I was worried that Fiona would now be lonely at home while I was out at work, but she rose to the occasion and reveled in having me all to herself. She began to talk more, in her slightly raspy, expressive voice. She had never been very sociable when humans came to visit, but now she became Miss Congeniality, greeting friends and contractors alike. She was particularly fond of my electrician. I did finally realize that she missed her big, fluffy cuddle-buddy Foxy, when she took to sleeping on the guest room bed during the day, curled up with a toy horsie who was about Foxy’s size. Still, she was happy, healthy, and gracefully approaching her old age. Until she wasn’t.

The first crisis occurred a few years ago, when she developed hyperthyroidism, a common ailment in older cats. After fiddling with oral medication for a year, I had her treated with radioactive iodine in August of 2015. It worked. No more pills, and she was once again robust. A year later, she started to have a few brief bouts of vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea, but they cleared up in a day or two. Until they didn’t anymore. A few weeks ago, she began having these episodes every other day. Her regular vet was maddeningly passive. Fiona was not getting better, she was not getting enough nutrition, and she was becoming dehydrated. I got the vet to order full labs and an abdominal ultrasound, all with inconclusive results. Not once did the vet offer relief for Fiona’s symptoms, until I insisted on it. Finally, I’d had enough, found another, much better vet, and took Fiona to see him this past Tuesday. We came up with a provisional diagnosis and a treatment plan. If I wanted further diagnostics, he suggested I take her to the specialty emergency vet hospital. I decided I’d see how she responded to treatment and go from there. Later that day, she became exhausted and weak, and by nightfall, she developed labored breathing. I was scared now. I drove through the pouring rain at nine o’clock that night to the emergency hospital. The vet on duty was kind, persistent, and worked hard to assess her as quickly as he could, with a minimum of misery to Fiona, to come up with some answers. The answers he arrived at were that she had extensive cancer of the small intestine and sepsis. He did say that surgery was possible, but given her current weakened state, I felt it would be risky and that she had suffered enough. He agreed. At 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday night, he gave her the appropriate injections, and Fiona died while I kissed her forehead.

I can’t begin to describe how shattered I have felt this week. I have not been without at least one pet since 1981, and usually, I’ve had two or three. The house is so empty, so still. Sometimes, I imagine I hear little paws pattering on the floor or seem to feel the pressure of four feet landing on the bed to keep me company. I never can seem to get warm enough at night, no matter how many blankets I pile on or how high I turn up the thermostat. For thirty-six years, there has always been a furry face or three waiting to greet me at my door when I came home. I grieve mightily for sweet Fiona, but also for every pet I’ve lost. I’ve never set out to adopt any of the strays or rescued pets I’ve loved. They’ve always appeared, on their own, or at the instigation of someone else, when they needed me. Eventually, I am sure that another will arrive when I’m ready. But for now, I need to sit with this enormous grief that I know is just the flipside of the enormous love that all these fur babies have shown me over the years. People who think that animals do not love are fools.

So, I feel heartsick and blessed at the same time. I will admit that I often prefer animals to humans, but the outpouring of concern and affection I’ve received from so many friends, in person and on social media, has touched me and given me much comfort. More than that, it is a needed balm at a time when many of us are flabbergasted and concerned about our present political climate. It’s a reminder, when I very much need one, that there is still decency in this world. Thank you all for the love, and not only just this week, but over the years. And especially, I thank those of you who’ve loved Fiona, too.

Turn and Face the Strange: Coping in the New Year


Was 2016 really as bad as we thought? It was a hell of a year. Just looking back at the cultural icons who died, the first massive shockwave for many of us was the death of David Bowie on January 10th. While we were still reeling from that, four days later, actor Alan Rickman died. Both were 69. And four days after that, Glenn Frye, co-founder of the Eagles, died at age 67. And that was just the beginning.

I am 62. These three artists not only contributed greatly to the music and films I’ve admired and enjoyed, but they were my peers in age, members of my generation. Their creative output spoke to how I felt about life, often helping me understand it. Meanwhile, I’m still getting used to the notion that I’m in my sixties. I don’t feel old, but I don’t feel young. I figure I’ll probably be around for a while. But who knows? Maybe not. The death of three peers in eight days tends to shake you up.

Of course, we all know how this continued. Some of the folks we lost in 2016 at least got to live to their eighties or nineties. Some, like Prince and George Michael, didn’t even make it to their sixties. And, in a two-fisted gut-punch, Carrie Fisher died at age 60 on December 27th, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died at age 84 the next day. You could be forgiven for thinking that 2016 was apparently bent on cutting a cruel, irreparable swath through our cultural lives.

So, yes, 2016 was just as sucky as we all thought it was. And that’s not even mentioning my more personal losses. Or politics.

Because I am 62, and have a long memory, and pay attention, I have for decades been reading and listening to news about the putative winner of our presidential election. And I must admit I’ve always thought he was a self-serving vulgarian. I have long been aware of his questionable business practices, his misogyny, his prejudices, his colossal bankruptcies, his shafting of thousands of contractors by not paying them for their work, the myriad lawsuits filed against him, his unfaithfulness to his former wives, his divorces, his execrable taste in interior design. He did nothing to change my opinion during the campaign. Indeed, he brought new meaning to the definition of cynicism. And apparently that cynicism was shared by enough of our fellow citizens to have gotten him elected. Or perhaps folks just weren’t paying attention to his history all these years. It’s an understatement to say I’m disappointed, but I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. The issue now is figuring out how to cope and what to do.

The Butterfly Effect

The day after the election, I was on a plane, flying to a conference whose purpose was to begin to thrash out some practical ways to help people with metastatic breast cancer deal with the collateral damage of living with the disease and its treatment. It was the perfect distraction and antidote to how I was feeling. Spending two days surrounded by a few dozen intelligent, passionate, articulate clinicians and advocates restored a lot of my faith in humanity. It was also a rare treat for me to take time off from work and spend a few days on the West Coast. I don’t get limitless time off, and I can rarely afford to travel whenever I want to every conference I’m interested in, so I appreciated this opportunity. When I got home, I napped, unpacked, and went back to my patients on Monday. At least I get paid to help people. That privilege has been especially helpful to my sanity these past several weeks, while I’ve tried to process the ramifications of this election.

Most of us can’t just quit our jobs and become full-time activists. But we can view all this as a wake-up call to learn more about how our government works and how to become perhaps better and more active citizens. There is a lot of information out there to help you figure out how to make your concerns heard. I have contacted my representatives on issues that matter to me, and have heard back from them. I’ve signed a few petitions, written emails, made phone calls and contributions to non-profits, subscribed to a few reasonably reliable media sources. If you wish the election turned out differently, here’s a link, from Patti Mulligan, with resources to help you figure out what you can do if you want to do something.

Mostly though, the challenge for many of us is how to get from one day to the next. And that’s where butterflies come in. The Butterfly Effect is the concept that even small actions can start a process that creates large changes down the road. It was initially coined in the realm of weather science. In popular culture, it’s come to be used by many to assert that there is a reason or an explanation for everything, but that is not it’s original meaning. Nor do I believe there is a reason for everything, because sometimes shit happens, like cancer for instance, and we don’t know why. Hence chaos theory. But in my own daily life, I interpret it to mean that every small act of kindness, consciousness, or goodness can make a small change for good in the world, at least for a moment. And that those acts can influence others to do likewise. And if we live our lives that way, deliberately acting from our best selves, those small changes can add up to bigger ones. So, it matters that you treat everyone with respect and kindness, even if you don’t like them, or agree with them. It also matters that you treat yourself with kindness and respect, and that may mean not permitting people to treat you like crap. Or permitting them to treat others like crap. Acting from your best self doesn’t mean being a doormat.

Of course, I’m a physical therapist, so I have to believe in the power of small, incremental actions. I have to believe that if my patients do a few simple exercises every day, they’ll eventually walk better. And, indeed, that is what happens, over and over. And I have to advocate for them when the healthcare system isn’t giving them something they need. Think about all the times when someone thanks you unexpectedly, or does something extra for you, how good it makes you feel. It can be something simple, like having the cashier at the store recognize you, smile, and ask how you are. It all matters. Most of the time, when you just smile at someone, you get a smile back. Smiles can be contagious. Kindness is contagious. Advocacy is contagious. That’s what I’ve experienced at least.

Sometimes I fail at this. I’m only human. I get frustrated at bad drivers like anyone else. It’s okay to feel frustrated. It’s even okay to curse. But we can choose not to then cut off the next person at the next intersection. We can feel and verbalize our frustrations, but we can choose not to take them out on someone else. We can pick our battles, and let go of the tangles we can’t fix.

It’s not easy. The world we humans have made is full of pain and misery and violence and hatred. But the people we have lost this year demonstrated that it is also full of art and music and talent and humor and goodness. And that those things may not fix everything, but they matter. We have to believe that they matter, and never let anyone talk us out of that belief.

I leave you with some perspective from David Bowie, from his song, Changes:

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through
Turn and face the strange
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it

Metastatic Breast Cancer: Helping Us Help You

For two days at the end of next week, I will be attending a brain-storming conference to discuss ways to help mitigate the collateral damage experienced by people with metastatic breast cancer. This discussion will include patient advocates who have MBC, and patient advocates who have had non-metastatic breast cancer and are clinicians who treat cancer patients in our practices. As many of you already know, I belong to the latter category.

Some months ago, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation launched the Metastatic Breast Cancer Collateral Damage Project [MBCCD Project]. Initially, the project began by developing a survey to gather information about collateral damage from those who live with it. Then, clinicians like myself, who have had breast cancer and who treat patients with breast cancer, were asked to step forward and volunteer to help. Recently, the survey study was conducted, inviting people with MBC to describe the impact of MBC on their lives and provide details of all the types of collateral damage it has caused. A Health of Women (HOW) Study™ questionnaire was used to document this damage. Once the survey results were collected, DSLRF arranged for the conference I described above, and I was invited to participate.

Based on the survey results, an agenda has been drawn up to help guide those of us who will attend the conference. We will be meeting to review everything that has been shared by survey participants, and to work on developing concrete recommendations to improve the quality of life for people living with MBC. The goal is to come up with specific recommendations, based on our personal and clinical experience, and to share them widely.

I work as a physical therapist. Oncology rehab was one of my clinical internships in grad school. I have worked in many settings over the past twenty-five years, but for over a decade now, I have worked for a visiting nurse agency affiliated with a local hospital and healthcare system, providing physical therapy treatment in patients’ homes. I help all kinds of patients with all kinds of problems that often extend beyond the scope of physical therapy. That’s how it is in homecare. Both nurses and physical therapists serve as case managers for patients, which means that we need to ensure that our patients get help with all of their needs — medical, pharmacological, emotional, and financial. We do this by knowing when to bring in other clinicians who have specific expertise and by advocating for our patients with their physicians. We also have a palliative care team to help cancer patients and others with serious illnesses to manage pain and collateral damage of all kinds. I’m very lucky that I get to help advocate for and assist patients in such concrete ways. Believe me, when you treat someone in her home, you really see the impact that cancer has on a person’s energy, daily life, family, and finances in a way you cannot in any other setting. Having been a breast cancer patient myself really helps, too. Consequently, I feel that I have a lot to contribute to this next phase of the MBCCD Project. And, incidentally, I am looking forward to meeting folks in person whom I’ve only known in cyberspace, like Lori, who blogs at Regrounding. A wonderful perk!

I can tell you truly that the most important thing I do to be a good clinician, and a good friend, for that matter, is to listen. So, thank you to all those who completed the MBCCD survey. Thank you to my friends with MBC who have shared so many of their personal struggles with me and trusted me for advice, support and friendship. Thank you to my amazing patients who have taught me much more than I’ve taught them. And thank you to my blog readers. I want to invite anyone who reads this now to help me, to help us help you, by commenting here on the blog or on social media, by emailing me at, or by messaging me on Facebook or Twitter. The more we know and understand, the more and better help we can provide. I’m listening.

The Misogyny and Deplorables* of Pinktober

The wrong kind of awareness.

It’s probably happened to all women. It recently happened to me when I made a homecare visit to a patient’s house, and she introduced me to her son. But the setting could be at the office or at a party. You are introduced to a man for the first time. The man doesn’t meet your eyes, doesn’t reach out to shake your hand, doesn’t say hello. Instead, he first rakes your body with his eyes to check out your legs, your breasts, your physique. It might be unconscious on his part, but he does it anyway. It might be entirely conscious, and when he finally does meet your eyes, they may show an approving leer or a dismissive sneer. You stand there and realize several things at once. You are aware of feeling uncomfortable. You know you’ve been judged, sized up, checked out, based entirely on how you look. Your personhood has been violated and dismissed. You doubt that this man will take anything you say seriously. Whatever redeeming qualities he may possess, you know that, in a fundamental way, he’s acting the part programmed by our culture, which is to act like a sexist jerk, just like the hundreds of other sexist jerks you’ve already met in your life over the years. What is unlikely is that you will say something. You’re used to it, too used to it. You’re busy, you have other things to think about, you have work to do. You try to ignore it and move on. But you store the encounter in that repository of shame, anger, fear, and frustration that every woman lives with from the day she is old enough to be aware of the threat that such encounters represent.

And these encounters are just the tip of the iceberg. In the past several weeks, we’ve all been made painfully aware that the mindset of rape culture reaches all the way from our courts to our presidential election. But its reality is hardly new. Back in November of last year, writer Gretchen Kelly wrote about it in the Huffington Post. She described the ugly truth, that “this is what it means to be a woman. We are sexualized before we even understand what that means. We develop into women while our minds are still innocent. We get stares and comments before we can even drive. From adult men.[…] We learn at an early age, that to confront every situation that makes us squirm is to possibly put ourselves in danger.”

Recently, a 2005 recording was released in which the GOP presidential candidate demonstrated the depths of his sexist depravity by asserting his belief that he was entitled to engage in sexual assault. Following this, Kelly Oxford invited women to tweet their first experience of sexual assault. A day later, she reported that she’d had over 9.7 million Twitter responses from women, many of whom saying they had more than one story to tell.

What does this have to do with breast cancer awareness?

For eight years, I’ve been speaking out in this blog not only about the corporate merchandising that exploits breast cancer, but also about the sexualizing, objectifying slogans, games, products, and so-called awareness campaigns that reduce a deadly, incurable disease to a prurient party about breasts. And for eight years, many of us can attest only too well that, despite our best efforts, these tone-deaf endeavors continue, and that many men and women, including some who have experienced breast cancer, fail to understand why we object to this ceaseless crap. “Lighten up,” we are told.

And why do we object to it? Why can’t we just “lighten up” and brush it off? Because, people, it’s part of the same culture in which men think they have a right to leer at our body parts and disregard our very existence. It’s part of the culture that produced a presidential candidate who bragged that his star status permits him to walk up to strange women and “Grab them by the pussy.” It’s part of the culture that obscures genuine awareness of breast cancer with exhortations to save the ta-tas, the hooters, the boobies, everything but saving the women and men who will die of this disease when it metastasizes.

It’s part of the culture in which the corporate donors of possibly the best-known breast cancer fundraising organization in this country evidently think there’s nothing wrong with raising money for breast cancer ‘awareness’ by selling sex toys, or by inviting women to show up at nightclubs in pink bikinis. It’s the culture in which that same organization has been loathe to revise the happy, pink image of survival it orchestrates at its fundraising events by including those who will ultimately not survive. And when that organization does finally invite someone with metastatic breast cancer to speak at one of these events, she is advised beforehand that “parts of my speech might ‘terrify’ the newly diagnosed in attendance and those sections should be deleted.”

But we should be terrified. Indeed, we are terrified. When 113 women and men die every day in this country of metastatic breast cancer, when the number of these deaths each year has not appreciably changed in decades, we ought as a society to be not only terrified, but ashamed.

We ought to be ashamed of a culture in which a judge gives a rapist a six-month sentence, stating he was concerned about the impact that prison would have on a man who assaulted an unconscious woman, but not evidently concerned about the impact that being raped would have on his victim. In light of that, perhaps we ought not to be surprised that this same culture can claim that breast cancer is the “sexy” cancer; that people can regard mastectomy and reconstructive surgery as merely “a free boob job;” that a pitiful, single-digit percentage of breast cancer research funding is spent on metastatic breast cancer, when up to 30% of those who are diagnosed with early breast cancer will develop metastases.

But we really must, by now, realize that this is unacceptable. It is abhorrent to define the disease that kills over 40,000 people each year entirely by the breasts in which it may first appear. We must acknowledge that trivializing breast cancer with campaigns and slogans that objectify women is an insidiously cruel, demeaning, perverse form of misogyny. And that we are obliged to reject it, as loudly as we can, as long as it takes to change it.

*Go the this link for the origin of the phrase, “basket of deplorables.”