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My cat, Tara, is a blood donor. That means I find myself at my local emergency and specialty vet clinic about once every two to three months. Often I wait for her in the lobby for the hour and a half or so that she gives blood and recovers from the sedation required for her donation. As you can probably imagine, I see all kinds of things from the funny to the tragic. And it’s usually quiet enough in the lobby that you can’t help but overhear conversations. But one encounter there a couple of days ago, during Tara’s last blood donation, was really heartbreaking.

A couple, probably in their late 50s or early 60s, sat down a few seats away from me. I didn’t pay much attention while they were chit-chatting. I was busy reading my book.

But then one of the doctors came to talk to them. Words were exchanged in a low and compassionate voice. I heard words like “tumor” and “larger,” and then an explanation of the next chemotherapy treatment they could try if they wanted to. The oncologist then left them alone to talk about what they wanted to do next. “Seventeen isn’t long enough,” I heard the man say, his voice cracking.

You might jump to the conclusion that this couple was keeping their cat alive for their own sake rather than thinking of what’s best for the cat herself, but I didn’t get that vibe from them at all. Their words also brought me back to a time, almost seven years ago now, when I was facing some equally heartbreaking decisions for my cat, Dahlia, who had developed cancer at age 6. I knew all too well what it was like to have a cat that was so sick and have people questioning your motivation and judging you–sometimes quite harshly–for your efforts on your sick cat’s behalf.

I wanted to turn to them and say something comforting, but I didn’t want to barge into their decision-making time, and I certainly didn’t want to let on that I’d overheard their conversation with the oncologist.

When Michelle, the blood bank director, came out with Tara, I asked the usual questions about how she did. “She did great, and everybody wanted to take her home with them,” Michelle joked. “You can’t have her, she’s mine,” I said with a smile.

After Michelle thanked me and returned to the treatment area in the back of the clinic, I told the couple, “She’s a blood donor. I had a cat that needed a transfusion once, and this is a great way to ‘pay it forward’.”

The man said it was wonderful that my cat was able to save other cats’ lives. He told me that their cat was there for cancer treatment. I told them I was sorry they were going through that. “I understand on some level what you’re going through; I had a cat who died from cancer once myself.”

“It’s hard,” he said. “She’s 17. Last year we lost a cat that lived to be 21 and a half. We’re just trying to keep her comfortable.”

After he said that, I knew exactly why he’d said “17 isn’t long enough.”

“Enjoy every single second you have left with her,” I told them. “And please give your kitty some love for me.”

We smiled at each other and I left. Driving home with my young, healthy cat in her carrier, strapped into the passenger seat, I felt almost at a loss. I hope I was able to at least give the couple some comfort by not judging them for what they were doing and letting them know they weren’t alone in having to deal with this horrible disease.

If there’s any lesson I hope you can take from this, it’s that it’s crucial to withhold judgment about why someone is engaging in a treatment for their cat that you may disagree with for your own reasons. This couple loved their cat to the moon and back; that much was clear. Cancer treatment isn’t cheap, and the fact that they were willing and able to spend that kind of money to keep their cat comfortable as long as possible speaks volumes to me about how much they cared about their cat. And their energy said that they were doing the chemotherapy out of compassion and not from a place of ego need.

Everyone is on their own journey,. Sometimes that journey is more painful than a stab in the gut and the grief throbs more than an abscessed tooth. Every day the people on this painful journey have to get up, go to work, take care of their homes and their other animal companions–and take care of their sick cat as well.

Compassion for both the cat and their people is key, and it’s the best gift we can give anyone who is struggling with a cat who has cancer, or any other life-shortening illness.