The Cat Came Back

Curly hard at work.

Recently, the cat who keeps me company at the Post Office, Curly, disappeared. She adopted our office as her home seven years ago. She spends her day sleeping in a chair atop a red, white, and blue blanket knitted for her by one of our customers. At night and when the office is closed, we place her outside to fend for herself.

This year, winter came early to the Hood River Valley. Our first snow fell on November 9th. Then, just in time for Thanksgiving, the weather turned cold, very cold. While acclimating to the season’s onslaught, I was also grappling with my doctor’s suggestion to renew treatment for my blood cancer, multiple myeloma.

I understand the proactive thrust of Dr M’s idea. Clinical trials demonstrate that low dose oral chemo can extend remissions in patients who have undergone a stem cell transplant. Nonetheless, I waver. The fact that I feel good makes me hesitate. Why set the clock ticking on treatment now? Shouldn’t I wait until I’m symptomatic?

Our home after a recent snow storm

As I contemplated what to do, the cold snap broke and torrential rains threatened to flood the valley. Last week, the snow returned. Several brief storms dusted the trees, decorating the shoulder of each branch with white epaulets. Then, the full moon joined with the solstice and bore the gift of a lunar eclipse. In years gone by, such heavenly triangulation would have prompted pagans to sacrifice an animal. After all, angry Gods must be appeased.

That was when Curly disappeared.

In a world full of unpredictability, Curly’s steadfast appearance at our back door each morning, is appreciated. Throughout my workday, the transactional banter that accompanies the selling of stamps often includes an inquiry about Curly. Customers want assurance that she is safe. In this way, she acts as a touchstone helping to forge bonds in the community that would otherwise be absent.

After four days of worrisome questions from admirers, my faithful companion reappeared. She seemed no worse for wear, just hungry and sporting a suspiciously torn claw on her back foot. I theorize that she entered a building from which she could not escape.

Curly’s return brought to mind an old folk song: The Cat Came Back. The tale it tells speaks to the resilience of cats, uncanny in their ability to land on their feet in the direst of circumstances. As the song progresses, it takes on sinister overtones. The cat not only comes back but does so with a vengeance that grows in proportion to the effort to be rid of him.

Spanky, another cat who comes back a lot

Something similar occurs when cancers relapse. Remissions imply that one’s cancer has disappeared. With many blood cancers, however, the disease exists undetected in a dormant state. It is myeloma’s capacity to evolve that makes it, thus far, incurable. The cancer has resourcefulness equivalent to a cat with nine lives; its true regenerative force, though, may actually be infinite.

In a New York Times article, The Cancer Sleeper Cell, by Siddartha Mukherjee, the author postulates: “Chemotherapy unleashes a ruthless Darwinian battle in every tumor. A relapsed cancer is the ultimate survivor of that battle, the direct descendant of the fittest cell.”

Hence, my reluctance to begin a regimen of chemo; I wonder if doing so when my quality of life is high not only eliminates an option but also makes the cancer smarter. Like Curly, I do not want to enter a building from which I cannot escape.

I am a pragmatic optimist. I respect the ingenuity of life in all its forms, be it a life threatening cancer or a cleverly resourceful cat. I also admire the persistence of science. Right now, I’d say the brilliance of researchers is gaining on the lethality of MM. One of these days, perhaps in my lifetime, the cat, or rather, the cancer, will not come back.