How I Learned to Walk Softly With Cancer (and Cats)


A male breast cancer survivor discovers this path to tranquility.

My two kittens are a year old now. My cancer is in its third year. It was during my second year as a male breast cancer survivor that my wife and I made the significant decision to add two more living beings to our family. We have no children, so we rescued a couple of kittens that were born in a barn.

One of the first astonishing traits these felines of ours displayed was the uncanny habit of “swimming” between our feet when we walked across the room. Imagine wading through a shallow tide pool at the beach. You look down and see two small grey porpoises darting in and out through your legs as you make your way through the water.

At night, when I get up to move about the house for a drink of juice or a bathroom break, it’s with some difficulty that I must navigate my way through the semi-darkness without A: stepping on a cat and B: breaking my neck.

Acquiring cats was an event that demanded much forethought since there were important questions to consider. I’m 67 and I’m living with the possibility of cancer reappearing. If these creatures live 20 years (they are strictly indoor animals here in Arizona with our ever-present coyote population) and if I survive that long also, it would put me well past the average U.S. life expectancy for men of just over 76 years. I’ve wondered if my wife would continue to enjoy their companionship if I was gone. And what if life, in its unpredictable design, was to leave me alone with these two kittens? Having said that, I fully believe in miracles and magic and I do expect to enjoy these two and my wife for many years to come.

So, here’s what I’ve learned from all of this:

Having swimming cats has slowed me down. And I don’t just mean my nightly trek to the kitchen. I’m speaking of my life, and most importantly, my life with cancer. Cancer forces us to take a step backward. Once the initial shock of our diagnosis has passed, even when the prospects are dire, many cancer survivors I’ve come to know tell me that a sort of “awaking” takes hold and we are available to make choices and change behaviors that no longer support us.

It’s through slowing down that these remarkable possibilities present themselves. It’s in these quiet moments, where shadows and silhouettes find the light of day, and fearful thoughts are laid to rest, that we gain the possibility to see things as we never saw them before.

What slows you down? More importantly, what slows you down in a positive and meaningful way?

Swimming cats are only one example of putting our lives on “simmer.” Perhaps reading a book you love works for you, or talking with a grandchild. Dancing recklessly with your significant other? Candle light suppers? Walking (cats or no cats). Hearty laughter? A night out with a Broadway musical?

“Stop and smell the roses” is a wonderful sentiment. But for a cancer survivor whose life has been kicked into high gear, the notion of stopping for any length of time may not carry the most positive connotations. And this is precisely where having cats at our feet (or the equivalent) creates a healthful speed limit to our lives.

For many years I had a vibrating wristwatch that was set to go off once each hour. No matter where I was or what I was doing at the time, that silent alarm reminded me to pause — even for a second or two — and remember to take a quick inventory of all the good things that were happening in my life—at that very instant.

My first wife died of ovarian cancer 20 years ago at the age of 47. From that day forward, whenever I have the chance to see or smell a fresh rose, no matter where it is or what I’m doing, I pause for a fleeting second and bring her memory to my mind. These simple triggers can help us to reboot our busy heads and drop all of the pressing issues that are finding their way into our lives.

My suggestion is that you create your own trigger point. The vibrating watch worked well for me. You can tie a string on your finger. Vow that every time you look at a text message you will also close your eyes for a second and breathe in some slowness. Be creative but choose something that you see, do or think about regularly. One thing I’ve learned as a student of Zen Meditation is that mindfulness takes work! You won’t find it by thinking about it, wanting it or searching for it. A daily practice all but guarantees it.

Having kittens has taught me how to walk softly--just as having cancer has taught me how to take one step at a time.

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