Guest post by Casey Hersch
This is the fourth in a series of posts by Casey Hersch. Casey discusses the many lessons she learned about caring for Yochabel during her illness, including her quest to stop Yochabel’s cancer from growing/spreading, barriers present with senior cats, variations in diet including supplements and herbs, and how to focus on the individual cat’s needs. Yochabel was not only Casey’s feline companion. She left Casey with ways to cope with her own illness, and with a greater sense of acceptance and gratitude.
Yochabel is truly a miracle in many ways. I watched her health improve with each month we cared for and loved each other. My health also improved. The unconditional love of a pet companion can heal us from the inside out. Over time, I added nutritional supplements to her regimen to support her joints, kidneys, and immune system. Yochabel’s homemade, nutrient and moisture rich species specific diet, her nutritional supplements, and her integrative health team were giving us more time together despite her age. She had more energy, and she moved with much less effort.
First thing each morning, we opened the door to her room so she could join us in the kitchen on her pedestal. As soon as she saw the light peek through the door, she lifted herself and bolted towards the door. It took about ten steps for her back legs to catch up to her front legs. As she motored across the room, tail swaying back and forth like a clumsy aristocat, her focus in her face showed her determination to join her family and receive and give love. I thought back to when she could barely move six inches without taking a break. Now she could walk across the house.
A cancer diagnosis, seemingly out of nowhere
As I immersed myself in the bliss and joy of our special bond, I never imagined that despite all the obvious signs that Yochabel was beating the odds, a bladder tumor was silently wreaking havoc in her body. I believe it was the incredible support we offered her body and the love that surrounded her that kept it silent – until seemingly out of nowhere, she developed a bladder infection. It did not resolve even after a rigorous combination of conventional and holistic medicine. An ultrasound confirmed she had a tumor in her bladder. It took up one third of her bladder.
As I sat with the veterinarian, she delicately broke the bad news to me by trying to tell me all the reasons it could be worse, “At least the tumor is not blocking her urethra. Yochabel’s clinical signs are strong.” I could feel my heart racing and my eyes burn as I held back my tears. I wanted to shut out the vet’s voice and go home, where Yochabel and I were sheltered from bad news. I wanted to continue our fun. I could not accept the reality that my fluff ball of love and goodness might be leaving me. Just the thought of it took my breath away. I put my face in Yochabel’s fur, clinging to her tightly, because I knew there was a “but” coming…”But, these tumors are fast growing and almost impossible to get rid of, so surgery is not an option. Right now, it is quality of life versus quantity.”
Finding hope and letting it carry us
I couldn’t believe Yochabel had a tumor inside her bladder. Other than an increase in urination, I saw no other symptoms. The part of me that has survived Crohn’s disease came to my rescue. Just like with my own illness, I was not prepared to accept that this tumor would get the best of us. Yochabel had given everything she had to healing since the day she came to live with me. I knew together, as a team, we could hold this tumor back, if not shrink it. It is well documented that the power of hope and positive thoughts is healing. I embraced that hope with every breath I had.
Creating a plan to treat and cope with bladder cancer
Maintaining hope despite a life-threatening diagnosis is really challenging. Creating a plan to keep Yochabel happy and comfortable gave me focus and helped me feel empowered over the cancer, not at the mercy of it. I knew Yochabel responded to my attitude, she sensed whether I was okay or not. The better I coped with the news, the easier it would be for her.
Yochabel’s Treatment Plan
- I focused on Yochabel’s strengths which were deeply rooted in her food connection. I used Yochabel’s passion for food to fight the cancer.
- Since I used integrative healing approaches for my own medical issues, Yochabel received the same care. I chose a reputable licensed integrative veterinarian who specializes in the most complex cases. She is world renowned in the use of Chinese herbs for treating cancer.
- In addition to acupuncture and chiropractic treatments, we explored other supportive modalities: energy therapies, pain management, consultation with a recommended animal communicator, NAET (Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique,) and biomagnetism.
- I adjusted her diet to reflect the current medical condition.
- I increased my support system. It is very difficult as a caregiver to watch someone you love struggle. I was scared and my grief was palpable. I needed help and could not do this alone. Psychotherapy, friends, other cat parents, and spirituality gave me strength.
- I made changes in our home to accommodate Yochabel’s fatigue and her increased urgency to urinate.
- I remained open-minded to additions to her treatment plan that would evolve over time.
Using food to heal
As her integrative vet applied her knowledge of Chinese medicine to Yochabel’s case, she recommended restricting her food choices to rabbit, beef, turkey, and an expansive list of fruits and vegetables. “Rabbit,” I thought. “Where am I going to get rabbit?” Yochabel loved chicken, and I was sad that it was not on the list. She was prescribed an assortment of Chinese herbs with the caveat that “most cats won’t tolerate them one bit.” However, and I hung on to these words like a lifeline, “if you can get Yochabel to take them, this is her best chance to stop the tumor from growing or giving her a systemic infection that could kill her.”
I was in crisis mode. I felt desperate to make sure Yochabel took her herbs. I imagined losing her if she didn’t, and it made me feel even more desperate. While spiritually I knew I wasn’t in control of Yochabel’s life span, I irrationally felt responsible for whether or not Yochabel lived or died. I knew she was dependent on me and I had to find a way to help her.
Yochabel refused to take her herbs when I added them to her homemade meals. I was overwhelmed by the variations of commercial food options: canned, raw, freeze dried, steamed, frozen, fully cooked. Further complicating the situation was that many high quality commercial cat foods had ingredients on her “do not eat list”–especially chicken, which was almost impossible to avoid. While I was preparing her meals myself, I questioned how I could work with such limited ingredients and still maintain Yochabel’s desire to eat.
I explored food after food with Yochabel and she said, “No. I won’t take my herbs.” I lost my mind for a little while before I realized that I was thinking outside the box with commercial foods, but not with the whole food ingredients she was already used to.
I changed my thinking process
…If she doesn’t like canned rabbit, maybe I can buy a whole rabbit.
…If she likes chicken thighs, but chicken is on the “do not eat” list, then maybe she will like turkey thighs (on the okay to eat list).
…If she likes her homemade pureed soup, maybe she will like creamy pureed asparagus.
…If she doesn’t like ground meat, maybe she will like a different texture (sliced, shaved.)
…I can explore temperature. Sometimes she wants her food warm and other times cold (usually she chose warm.)
It was a process of trial and error, meal after meal. But eventually, it worked. She made choices, many of which were surprising to me. She ate pureed cooked asparagus with an assortment of herbs and supplements the same way children enjoy ice cream. She relished the gelatinous cold broth which formed after I refrigerated baked turkey thighs. She ate her pills hidden in her kidney chews.
There is no perfect diet–just do your best.
Every choice had a trade-off. Because I needed chicken-free formulas, I might have to accept another less desirable ingredient. When the focus was on kidney disease, we used a diet low in phosphorus, but I couldn’t focus on ideal foods for cancer and low phosphorous at the same time. I had to choose. When something didn’t work for her, I changed her treatment plan. After all, the best plans in the world don’t matter if she isn’t compliant! This was about her needs, not mine.
Keeping Yochabel in charge of her treatment plan
A disease process such as cancer can make patient and caregiver feel very powerless. Our cats are just like us, they like to feel in charge of their bodies and often know what is best for them well before we do. There were times I was desperate for Yochabel to take her antibiotic, fearing the worst-case scenarios if she didn’t. I chose to never “pill” her. As long as I offered her choices, observed and respected her response, and modified accordingly, she complied with every single herb and supplement I asked her to take. I believe had I chosen to pill her, I would have lost some of the trust we had built. I didn’t want to force her to do anything. I wanted to remain in a partnership with her. This worked best for both of us.
On the day she passed away, Yochabel ate the remaining morsels of her home cooked rabbit and turkey thighs meal, and I threw in her favorite: chicken. Her weight never dropped one ounce during her illness. This is astonishing, given the severity of the tumor. Eventually the tumor got the best of her, but I am at peace knowing she was comfortable, had good quality life through the end, and our bond withstood the many challenges of cancer. What better answer to cancer is there?
Stay tuned for Part Five:
Yochabel’s Wisdom: Hospice at Home
Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, author, and founder of http://www.lightyoursparkle.life. She specializes in chronic illness and ways to empower others to be an expert on their own bodies. Pet companionship, and in her case, her cat friends, have been at the heart of her own healing. She is passionate about integrative treatment models for humans and pets.