Sympathy vs Empathy: I have cancer


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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