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Chemo Kitty

by Naomi VolainPatient, Breast CancerSeptember 29, 2022View more posts from Naomi Volain

Chemo Kitty: Lost your Hair? Just add Fur

Meet Ginger, my chemo kitty. She’s the pet I adopted after swearing I’d never get another pet, after my last cat Xena died a few years ago. Uh-uh. That litter box needing constant cleaning. The pet sitting logistics. That pungent cat food aroma. None of this appealed to me as I was going forward in life and time. But circumstances were different with cancer in the time of COVID.

In March 2021, COVID was raging, and I was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer. It’s an extremely aggressive cancer, so my oncologist went with the big guns—surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation. My cancer treatment would last over a year.

I realized I was going nowhere. COVID made me hyper-cautious now that I had a compromised immune system. No travel. No public places. I needed lots of rest and I felt terrible from the cancer treatment side effects. It was the right time for companionship and cuddling with a new cat.

Meanwhile, as a science teacher cartoonist, I’d been chronicling this whole cancer kaleidoscope by writing and drawing, with the goal of publishing a graphic memoir. My science teaching reflex kicked in, focusing on the treatment and how it worked to get rid of the cancer. I wasn’t thinking about losing my hair from chemotherapy.

My husband found Ginger’s listing in the Los Angeles Kitten Rescue. Ginger had been in an animal hoarding situation with thirty cages holding thirty cats and was now being fostered. Once our application was put in, we had to visit Ginger before getting approved for adoption. When we met Ginger, she snuggled close to me and licked my nose. A nose lick from a cat can mean many things; one meaning that resonated with me was that the cat is communicating that you belong to her. Shortly after the visit we were approved to be the forever family for our new furry girl.

There’s medical research developing to explore the true benefits of ‘Animal Assisted Interventions’ for people with an illness or disability. I learned that Ginger could be classified as an emotional support animal—neither these animals nor service animals (such as seeing eye dogs for blind people) are considered pets. Really? Ginger was my pet, and a comfort.

Later, I realized that my hair loss from chemo was starting to bother me, intensely. I thought I’d be one of the lucky ones as I wasn’t losing hair from the chemotherapy immediately. But once I hit the sixth of 12 cycles of Taxol and Herceptin, my hair started to fall out. I really loved my hair—big, wavy, shoulder length and blond highlighted. I breathlessly watched my hair fall out, like an accident I couldn’t look away from. It was jolting. I didn’t recognize myself.

I coped with my hair loss with Ginger’s furry comfort. I coped by cartooning. Look closely. Every sequential panel shows the progression of my hair loss. Every sequential panel shows my chemo kitty’s empathy.

Losing your hair? Just add fur. Journaling and drawing are great therapy too.

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