During the first months following my cancer diagnosis, I wouldn't acknowledge any kind of healing but physical healing. I wasn't interested in techniques that could help me cope better or extend my life expectancy by a few months; mere remission or "quality of life" didn't capture my attention either. Full recovery was the only option I would accept and I was willing to do anything, go anywhere, to achieve it.
When my surgeries and radiation treatments were over, I found myself in that frightening twilight zone of life after treatment. The doctors had done all they could and I was on my own to wonder if I'd be alive or dead by the following year. For the sake of my sanity, I tried hard to convince myself and anyone else who would listen that I was doing just fine and that cancer was no death sentence. My motto became, "I don't write off cancer patients." I was ferocious and flailing.
Only two weeks earlier, my lover and I had parted ways. I was feeling confused and frightened about the future. Alone in bed that night, I would look at the white walls and wonder who would want a thirty-nine-year-old cancer patient. Life in my apartment was dismally quiet. Then, Flora encountered my life - a skinny feral kitten about four weeks old, full of ringworm, fleas, and earmites. Shivering and alone under the wheel-well of my parked car, Flora looked desperately sick. I grabbed hold of her scraggly tail and tugged. Within seconds my hand was scratched to shreds, but I hung on and brought her hissing and complaining to my apartment. At that point, I realized that my lonely life welcomed the commotion of a tiny, angry kitten who would distract me from my own depressing thoughts.
With the arrival of the kitten, I pulled my energy away from myself and my fretful imaginings and concentrated on healing Flora. Along with ringworms and fleas, she had a terrible viral infection that had ulcerated her tongue, cheeks, and throat. I knew all about ulcers in the mouth, so I sympathized wholeheartedly with this miserable condition. It took weeks, but slowly Flora healed, and along the way we bonded. Soon, she was a loving, trusting ball of black-and-white fuzz who met me at my door each evening when I returned from work. The loneliness of my apartment vanished, and I cherished the success of our health venture together. Although my own future looked uncertain, success with Flora seemed to be something I could achieve.
Only weeks after I'd finally nursed Flora back to some resemblance of healthy kittenhood, she was diagnosed with feline leukemia. Cancer. Her veterinarian gave her the same sorry prognosis my oncologist had given me: Flora would most likely die within a year or two. My response was instant and unconscious. As soon as Flora's vet handed down the diagnosis, I wrote her off as a lost cause. Quickly, my emotional attachment to her ceased as I began to protect myself from the pain of her death, which I knew would come. The veterinarian had told me Flora would die and I simply accepted this. I stopped speaking to Flora and playing with her, because when I did I would end up hysterically sobbing for my kitten. It even became difficult for me to look at her. But Flora simply wouldn't let me pull away. When I'd walk past her, she'd chase after me. Her paw touched my cheek hesitantly each night as she curled up next to me in bed, her purr resonant and strong. If my mood was chilly, she seemed not to notice. Flora did what cats do best, she waited and watched.
Her patience finally won out. One night I had an "AHA!" experience about my attitude toward Flora. How could I believe my own cancer wasn't a death sentence when I couldn't see the same hope for her? How could I dismiss any being without dismissing myself? Although I was busy blathering about hope and healing, I knew that I honestly saw myself in the grave.
That realization was a profound turning point for me. It was slow in coming, but when it did, it hit me like a downpour of hail stones. How often in my life had I turned away from pain and loss, and from honest feelings? Living at "half-life", I'd put away emotion at the first inkling of loss, and had nearly lost myself in the process.
One night shortly after my awakening, I lit a candle for Flora and myself. We sat together looking at the flame, and I vowed to Flora that I would love her with wild abandon for as long as she was with me, because loving her felt so good. Pulling away from her hurt, and I didn't need any more painful isolation in my life. In loving Flora, I knew I would find a way to love myself as well - poor diagnosis and all. For the both of us, each day of life would be a day we could celebrate together.
I began a quest to heal Flora that included many of the same gems of complementary medicine I was attempting on myself. Flora got acupressure, vitamins, homeopathy, music and color therapy, detoxifying baths, and unlimited quantities of hugs, love, and affection. Her water bowl had tiny, colorful crystals in it. Her collar was a healing green.
What was most important in this process, though, was the attitude change I experienced from this "mumbo-jumbo", as some of my bewildered friends called it. Healing stopped being so painfully heavy. It became fun, even silly. When I told my friends I might have my house visited by dowsers to seek out and correct "bad energy vibrations", I damn well had to have a highly developed sense of humor!
Over the next few months, I slowly learned that healing is more than heroics over illness. Healing isn't simply an end result, it's a process. Flora helped me reclaim the joy that had died after my cancer treatment and my previous relationship had ended. She brought me tremendous peace with her quiet, trusting presence. Finally, as I saw Flora healed, loved, and cherished, I knew I could honestly hold the same hopeful vision for myself.
Flora is sleek, happy, and seven years old today. Her last three tests for leukemia have been negative. At the time of my "AHA!" with Flora, I felt that she was an angel sent to teach me that turning away from love accomplishes nothing. I believe that Flora was ready to die to bring me her message... if that's what it would have taken.
Excerpted from Animals as Teachers and Healers by Susan Chernak McElroy.
Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.