March 30, 2010 05:00 PM

Harold Jackson, 74, a retired refrigerator repairman in Cookeville, Tenn., a town about three hours east of Nashville, says he’s alive today because of his cat.

For 55 years, he had smoked a pack-and-half a day of cigarettes with little effect. Then a blessing in grim disguise – the death of a family cat – saved him from an undetected lung cancer.

About a year ago, Harold and his wife, Joyce, 73, a retired nurse, noticed that one of their twin cats, a domestic shorthair named Peaches, seemed sick. She had little appetite and gasped for breath.

The Jacksons’ veterinarian, Jerry Flatt, gave them medication but the couple was soon confronted with a bitter choice: force-feed and medicate Peaches while she suffered or euthanize her.

Finally, Harold wrapped Peaches in a blanket and took her to the pet clinic to be put to sleep, but Peaches, 14, died only a block and a half away from the Jacksons’ house. “She died in my arms,” Harold tells PEOPLEPets.com.

Before Peaches was cremated, Flatt, the veterinarian, asked the Andersons’ permission to perform an autopsy. Flatt was puzzled by Peaches’ tumor, a massive one about half the size of a woman’s fist.

On the X-ray, Flatt says, “it was hard to see what was heart and what was tumor, they were so involved.” Even on autopsy, it was not clear what killed Peaches. So, Flatt sent the tissue to a forensic lab and weeks later the mystery, while still unsolved, contained disturbing news for the Jacksons.

The report mentioned a possibility of malignant mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. If the cat had been exposed, that meant the Jacksons could have been exposed, too. Flatt urged the couple to be tested.

In the end, Joyce was cleared of disease, but a tiny spot was found on Harold’s left lung, a cancer unrelated to mesothelioma. It and surrounding tissue – no larger than the tip of an adult’s little finger – were surgically removed in June 2009.

Flatt’s telephone call is “what saved my husband’s life,” says Joyce. The oncologist told the couple he had never found a lung cancer so soon. “It would have been a long time before my husband had symptoms and then it would have been too late,” she says.

To thank Flatt, 60, Joyce wrote a letter of commendation to the state association of veterinarians, which gave Flatt an outstanding practitioner award recently. His story, and Peaches’ death, was then covered in the local newspaper.

Harold says he is feeling fine now and has quit smoking. Joyce still reads out loud to Peaches’ surviving sister, Princess, as she did with Peaches. (A favorite: The Private Life of the Cat Who by LilianCQ Jackson Braun.)

In their home Peaches’ ashes are in a brown wooden box, with her cat collar and a blue plastic clothes pin, her favorite toy, on top.

Everyone says Harold was lucky, but Joyce sees more. “The Good Lord had his hand in all this,” she says. “It was too much coincidence.”

See more life-saving pets on PEOPLEPets.com:
Gracie the Dog Helps Paralyzed Owner Escape Fire
German Shepherd Shot Twice While Protecting Mom and Baby

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