If not for a beloved pet, a Richland woman might not have discovered until it was too late that her breast cancer had spread.
In March 2001, Joyce Fitzgerald was diagnosed with stage 2 cancer in her left breast. She discovered it during a self-exam the same day her husband, Dennis, finished chemotherapy treatments for cancer.
The day before her first chemotherapy treatment, her cat Stretchie jumped up on her. She ignored the cat, so he did it again, this time landing hard on her right breast and causing her some pain. When she began to rub the spot where it hurt, she felt a lump -- in the same place where doctors in Seattle had examined her and found nothing just a week prior.
The next day, she went to her doctor at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center, where a tiny, malignant tumor was discovered.
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Since her odds for survival were the same regardless, Fitzgerald passed on having a mastectomy and opted for lumpectomies and heavy chemotherapy.
She went through eight months of chemotherapy and radiation, with the latter causing third-degree burns on parts of her body.
She spent another 10 months recovering from the difficult treatments. Throughout it all, Stretchie was there to comfort her.
"Stretchie would lie next to me," she said. "He would put his big paw on my chest, always managing to find a spot that didn't hurt. He would lie there all day and night."
Whenever Stretchie left to eat or use the litter box, his sibling Moochie would jump up and take his place of comfort next to Fitzgerald.
The Fitzgeralds got the cats from the Humane Society when they were kittens.
In 2005, about a year after Fitzgerald recovered from her treatment and her cancer was in remission, Stretchie got sick. Veterinarians were unable to find anything wrong, but Stretchie died.
"He went very peacefully and quietly," Fitzgerald said in a soft voice. "It was a great loss, as he had really pulled me through cancer. I credit him with so lovingly helping me to recover. It was a pretty heavy role. He did something that I don't think anyone else could have done."
She views Stretchie as a guardian angel of sorts.
"They would not have found that tumor for quite awhile, perhaps another six months or a year," she said. "I do look at him as having a mission."
-- The lavender ribbon we are using in this series represents awareness of all cancers.