Turnabout is fair play at the Pierson home in northeast Albany.
In 2016, Michelle Pierson rescued her black-and-white cat, Mia. In 2018, Mia returned the favor and rescued her by alerting her to an aggressive cancer growing in her right breast.
Pierson said that when she and her husband, Will, moved to Albany from the Midwest about 13 years ago, they brought with them two dogs: Tucker and Joe.
“Tucker died in 2016 and Joe, who is 17-plus years old, got pretty mopey,” she said. “So, I decided to find him a friend.”
Pierson knew a kitten likely wouldn’t get along with an older dog set in his ways, so she searched area animal shelters for an older cat.
“I looked at a lot of them, but they just didn’t fit,” she said. “Then, I found this cat that was called Wendy at the Willamette Humane Society in Salem.”
Pierson said Wendy — renamed Mia — “is a little overweight, but she is very laid-back and easygoing.”
The family slowly integrated Mia into their home, but she quickly became the couple’s bedroom partner.
“She sleeps right next to me,” Pierson said.
One night in July, Mia jumped onto Pierson's chest and began pawing and sniffing her right breast.
“She looked me right in the face,” she said. “I tried to push her away, but she jumped right back on my chest and did it again.”
Pierson, 48, said Mia’s actions prompted her to examine her breast. She found a tender spot.
“I called my doctor and two weeks later, I had an ultrasound and a mammogram,” Pierson said. “I have a history of fibrous cysts when I was 14 and again in my 30s.”
Test results came back around the Fourth of July. They showed that Pierson had an extremely aggressive form of cancer.
Pierson and her husband work in Eugene. Her surgery was scheduled there at the McKenzie Willamette Surgery Center.
“Mentally, I had convinced myself it wasn’t going to be serious and that I would probably have a lumpectomy and radiation treatments,” she said. “But during surgery, they took tissue samples and the tumor had grown a lot and it had spread into at least one lymph node.”
“My surgeon said it looked like the cancer cells were trying to spread everywhere,” Pierson said.
After surgery, she began a long-term regimen of chemotherapy at the Willamette Valley Cancer Institute in Corvallis, followed by daily radiation treatments.
“I have five or six more chemo treatments,” she said.
Pierson has lost her hair but doesn't try to cover her head with a wig.
“I see this as an opportunity to educate people and to start conversations about why mammograms are important,” she said.
Pierson said it helps that she was in good physical shape before her diagnosis and treatment.
“I ate right, exercised and even ran a half-marathon,” she said. “I was faithful about getting an annual mammogram and only missed one year, when our daughter got married in 2016.”
Pierson continues to work, missing only the day of her chemotherapy.
And the experience has taught her a lot about life and herself.
“I have always been the strong one in our family,” she said. “I’m the rock. I’m a project manager at work, so I’m always fixing things. I have always let others know I love them and will take care of them.”
But now, Pierson said, she is the one being taken care of, and the outpouring of love from her family, friends and neighbors has been “amazing.”
“I get photos from family members while I’m getting chemo,” she said. “People have brought us food, blankets and gifts. It’s truly amazing.”
Pierson calls Mia “my buddy” and says her dogs know the cat's a little extra special around the house. They also know that Mia “owns our bedroom, no dogs allowed.”
Pierson had heard stories about dogs detecting cancer in their owners, but had never heard about a cat doing so. Humans have about 5 million scent receptors, while dogs have from 125 to 300 million scent receptors depending on their breed. Cats also have an amazing sense of smell.
Pierson said it helps that her husband was a witness to what unfolded.
“I know all of this sounds strange, but I grew up around our family farm in Nebraska and we always had pets,” she said. “Animals have a special instinct about things. They live in the now and they act on their intuition.”
Pierson — who enjoys painting — says this experience has also taught her “to slow down. I don’t have to set the world on fire.”
She hopes her story will encourage women to take care of themselves and get an annual mammogram, especially since October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. More than 330,000 people will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year in the United States alone.
“We have a history of strokes and heart attacks in our family,” Pierson said. “Cancer was a total surprise. I grew up when no one talked about cancer and it was a death sentence. Not today. I think we are very close to finding a cure that works.”