Sympathy vs Empathy: I have cancer

February 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Guest Blog


by Sarah Stiles

Sympathy vs Empathy. Guest blogger Sarah Stiles explains the different reactions she receives to the news she has cancer.

What do you do when you hear that you have cancer?

Cry? Scream? Laugh? Carry on as normal? Deny it? Shake? Sleep? Stay awake all night? Drink? Stop eating? Reach for the chocolate? Tell no one? Only tell those you trust? Go shopping?

So far, I’ve done all of the above. None of them have helped to quell the overwhelming despair in my heart. It’s not until it happens to you, personally, that you realise how devastating it is and how it spirals you in to the depths of another depression.

Sympathy vs Empathy: Emotional journey

Yet some seven years later since I first heard those words: ‘Its cancer,’ I can truthfully say that I have been on one almighty roller coaster of a journey, when it comes to my emotions and my feelings.

It goes without saying that there have been bad days. In fact, some really bad days. Those days when it was a mission to get out of bed before the lunch time TV news. The days when ironing a pile of shirts, just for the hell of it, was the highlight of the week. But once you get through the surgery and recuperation, life really does start to take on an entirely new meaning. You start to find a glimmer of hope.  After all, there is no doomsday book which lists the hour, the day or the year which will be our last living and breathing day on this earth.

In time, you find yourself only doing things that are ‘meaningful’ and things that make you ‘smile’.  It can be anything; little things like a picnic on the beach or splashing out on a once in a lifetime cruise from Southampton to New York. For the last seven years, the one thing that has given me the greatest joy and happiness is the cherished time that I have spent with my friends and especially the time that I have shared with my family.

Sympathy vs Empathy: Second diagnosis

So why is it that now I face a second diagnosis of cancer that my biggest bringer of joy has become my biggest burden of despair?


To be diagnosed with cancer once is shattering. When you hear the word ‘cancer’ you can’t but hear the words ‘untimely death’. To be diagnosed twice, is crushing.

But there is something that makes you feel far worse than hearing those dreaded words, ‘It’s cancer.’ That is, the reaction of other people to your news.

“Oh my God… again!” “How am I going to cope with this… again” “I can’t take it… again.”  This has been the reaction from friends.

Sympathy vs Empathy: Definitions

The dictionary defines sympathy as:  ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’. And empathy is defined as:the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’.  The reaction to my bad news is not sympathy and it is certainly not empathy. I seek neither.


If I was pushed to choose one, it would have to be empathy. My situation is what it is and there is nothing I can do to change it. I would like to think that my friends know me well enough to understand how fragile I feel at hearing I have cancer… again. 

Sympathy vs Empathy: The burden of others’ reactions

But when I hear, “Gosh, hospital… again,” and then they go on to say how much they “hate hospitals,” or “I don’t know how I am going to cope when you lose your hair,” it’s like taking on the burden of other people’s emotions and reactions, as well as the overbearing burden you already feel. It’s too much. I am yet to tell my mum and my two sisters. I know they care and love me, but I can’t cope with thehysteria, thewailing, and thesorrow, which the news will bring.


It’s overwhelming when people turn your suffering into their pain. They don’t have to go through the surgery and the physical pain and the treatment. But they manage to make you feel responsible for their grief. In a weird kind of way, at least when you are dead you don’t have to suffer other people’s reaction to your demise. But whilst you are alive it is cancer + it is about me not you which = deepening of my own depression. 

Sympathy vs Empathy: Other reactions

The other reaction that drives me crazy is when friends launch into stories about their friends with cancer. “Mary had hers removed 10 years ago and she is still going strong,” or “if you want me to put you in touch with Tom, he can tell you all about his prostate cancer.” Hello!  It doesn’t help me to feel better.

Sympathy vs Empathy: Be tactful

Whilst there is no prescribed way to react to bad news, please spare a thought for the bearer of the illness. They are already experiencing pain, distress and despair.  Try to understand that they might already be coping with depression.  If you must share your feelings, be tactful, please don’t add the unwanted burden of your emotions to an already wretched situation.

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Vitality – Where does it go and how do you get it back?

January 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Guest Blog


by Sarah Stiles

I am sitting her wondering, “How did I lose my ‘vitality’?” I’m not entirely sure when I lost it, but I am certain it went astray. Without vitality I felt flat. So flat that nothing excited me and I found that I derived little or no pleasure from things or activities that I once enjoyed.

I would go as far as to say that I can’t remember exactly when I lost that vavavoom, oomph, vigour and zest to get up and do things, which is fine because I was in the doldrums with a low mood. Although not ‘clinically’ depressed, just feeling glum, so why do I need it?  Saying that, I knew if I could get a little bit of bounce back into my stride and if I could find a way to add a little sparkle to my day, I might just start to feel brighter and in time, more positive about life in general.

The trouble is it became so easy to do nothing.  It is so easy to make excuses and to stay in that dark miserable rut than it was to try and get out of it.

For example, I used to be a social butterfly I enjoyed being with people and doing things, but without vitality, when I got an invitation to go out with friends, I avoided all contact. On the rare occasion, if I did go out, I made little or no effort to speak to anyone, I just couldn’t be bothered.

On a day to day basis I managed to fill my time by keeping busy doing nothing in particular. I tended to sleep until midday. I slouched around the house in my onesie and although I could see that life was slowly passing me by, I simply didn’t have the energy or the inclination to do anything about it.

Then one day, I asked myself ‘How much longer can I continue to plod on in this sorrowful state?’ There was a part of me that longed to get back to ‘normal’. I had been down in the dumps for so long that I’d forgotten what normal was. I wanted to get back to feeling excited and to doing things rather than making excuses and avoiding taking that crucial step forward towards recovering my vitality.

I wanted to re-light the fire of a desire to do things, anything, no matter how small. I lacked energy. I didn’t feel up to joining a gym, or going to a fitness class.

So I decided to start with something simple. My new daily activity was walking. I didn’t need any special equipment, nor did I need to schedule an appointment with a fitness trainer. It was a gentle walk near to home. The first couple of weeks were slow, and when I got home I felt exhausted. I persisted and set aside an hour at the same time every morning to go for a walk. It was not long before I was able to extend my walk. I found the more I did, the more I could do.

I upped the pace and I started to walk with a new found purpose and zest. This new physical activity made me feel so much brighter. It also helped to ease my mental angst. Being out in the fresh air helped to make me think clearer and my sleep improved too. I felt as though I had crossed over from a dark dismal place to somewhere lighter and more alive.  It was the beginning of my journey to get some vitality back into my life.

I started to feel physically stronger and more able to do things. I was able to take stock of where I am now. You often hear that phrase ‘Be where you are now,’ but it was not until I rediscovered some vitality that I could think and take on board what it really meant to me. For the first time in a very long time I stopped dwelling on the past. I stopped mulling over all the things that had gone wrong. I stopped thinking negative thoughts and I started to concentrate on the good and positive aspects of where I was.

It is true the more you do, the more you can do. I have added swimming to my routine. It was not easy to get out of the house and get to the local pool but once there I enjoyed it.

I have still got a long way to go on my journey before I can say I feel exuberant or effervescent, but by recognising that my vitality was lost, and taking that first hesitant step to regaining it, has turned my life around for the better . I feel a great sense of hope for the future.

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What does procrastination mean?

November 13, 2013 by  
Filed under Guest Blog


To procrastinate…dilly dally, shilly-shally

by Sarah Stiles

What does procrastination mean? Sarah Stiles is about to explain…

I have been a bit down lately and just when I thought that I could not feel any worse it looks as though I might be suffering with something else too. It’s not exactly an ailment. And, there is no point going to the chemist to ask for something over the counter to stem the symptoms.

The fact is there is no known magic cure for it.  Nonetheless, I’m sure I have it. The dictionary definition for it is ‘procrastination’  to delay or postpone action; put off doing something. It also says that “the temptation will be to procrastinate until the power struggle plays itself out”

Yep, that’s me. I promised to write an article as to whether I thought that Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT therapy) has helped to get me back to a happier place. I know I can do it, and I know I will do it, eventually. But…

If you are suffering, as I am, from procrastination, the daily dilly dallying dance of shilly-shallying will be a familiar one. Each time I try to put pen to paper something much more engaging takes its place.

First there was the fridge. How could I even think about sitting down to write when the fridge needed cleaning?This was not just any ordinary fridge clean it was one of those super-duper deep steam cleans that took the entire morning. Every item was removed, wiped with a clean cloth and rearranged in perfect height order back into the fridge.

I even went as far as to wash all the potatoes, dry them and then put them neatly back into the vegetable tray. It is so satisfying to open the fridge door, stand back and admire your morning’s work. But what about writing that article? 

I could write or I could clean out the cutlery draw first. Yes, once the cutlery draw is cleaned my mind would be free to write. So, once again, my writing was put on hold until the cutlery draw was cleaned. The funny thing about cleaning the cutlery is that it could take half an hour or it could take half a day. Well before I knew it, the afternoon had past. There was no time to write because now it was time to prepare the evening meal. My writing would have to wait until tomorrow.

They say that “Fear of failure is often the reason why people procrastinate” What ‘s to fear about writing? I wonder if it is more to do with the fear of actually doing something positive; the fear of moving forward. Or whether it is the fear of feeling that you are heading for a better and happier place? Without a doubt it is easier to do nothing than it is to do something. Doing something takes initiative. It takes energy and requires a certain amount of effort.

Effort. Energy. Focus. Now I am starting to feel tired. Anyhow, I digress… back to the point in question: has CBT helped to get me back to a happier place? I will answer that, I have a brilliant idea for a great article, but first I have to pair all of the socks in the draw upstairs. 

What does procrastination mean? I hope you’re now a little clearer…

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