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Let's Discuss...Empathy vs Sympathy

Re: Let's Discuss...Empathy vs Sympathy

Posted by Clarke on Feb 13, 2020 8:27 am

What a great explanation of the two!
thank you😀

Re: Let's Discuss...Empathy vs Sympathy

Posted by Lacey_Moderator on Feb 13, 2020 10:01 am

When I was first diagnosed with cancer in 2018, my friends and family were supportive and offered help and support to me and my spouse. However, when my cancer recurred within a few months in 2019, most of those same people assumed that I would survive the chemotherapy and cancer as I did before. So they did not offer anything except that “it was too bad the cancer back”.
I did not tell everyone, but only told a select few friends about my cancer coming back. Because last time, some of those so-called-friends made me a topic of gossip at the “Happy Hour” gatherings during the summer months that I could not attend because of my being sick from chemotherapy side effects. Even to point to the point of making jokes about me being bald, walking with a cane and not drinking with them. I was not one of the party people anymore and an open target for jokes. I did not tell any of those people that my cancer came back. I was so hurt, disappointed, and angry about how they treated me about my cancer the first time.
Of all the people that I told about my cancer recurrence in Oct 2019 , I did not hear from most of them again until Christmas. No phone calls, texts, emails, nothing from them to even check if I was still alive. I always made the first step to contact them. Even then they shunned me by offering excuses not to see me for a visit, meet for lunch, etc. After I saw those friends at Christmas, it was the same no contact. It’s mid-February and none of them has phoned, texted, or emailed or tried to make contact. I tried engaging some of them in January, but they always have convenient excuses. So I stopped trying. This time it’s just me and my spouse and a couple of close friends who are also going through cancer/chemo at the same time, although different cancers.
So my point is that some people were sympathetic to my cancer for the first time. But not for the second time. “Been there, done that. Give us a call when cancer is over.” It’s like sympathy can only be offered once for the same reason. There is a limit on sympathy. It’s no joke. I actually had one person say to call them once I finished my chemo and the cancer was gone, and until then they would be out of the picture. They just could not deal with me having cancer again. It was just “too much for them to handle.”
When I told people (who have cancer themselves) about my cancer, those people had a genuine understanding. They listened and understood my concerns and feelings. When I talk with my cancer friends, it is a different type of conversation. We don’t feel sorry or pity one another, but talk openly about the cancer and our future – good or bad. We discuss symptoms, treatments, side effects and even fears of dying. Empathy doesn't leave us feeling alone.

Helentess‍ - You are so right "Empathy doesn't leave us feeling alone." Please add us to your group of supporters. We appreciate that you're hear sharing with us. How are you doing today? Are you still having treatment?


Re: Let's Discuss...Empathy vs Sympathy

Posted by princessmaura on Feb 13, 2020 1:12 pm

there have been some wonderful responses concerning the discussion on empathy versus sympathy...
I think that a person has to go through something in order to truly empathize with the other person...you won't fully know what it's like to have cancer until you get diagnosed with cancer yourself...but that's just my two cents...

Re: Let's Discuss...Empathy vs Sympathy

Posted by law on Feb 13, 2020 2:27 pm

Thanks Lacey, for inviting responses.
Here's my 2 cents:   Empathy is expressing support for someone whose situation you have experienced first hand; whereas sympathy is expressing similar support, although the person has not experienced the situation directly.
I received both during my cancer struggles. I did prefer empathy as it gave me more trust that the person expressing it actually knew what I/ they were talking about and I could learn from them and be really comforted.
I also received lots of sympathy, yet it seemed to come from someone with a lot of uncomfortable confusion and well-meaning but annoying suggestions, such as: "You are so tough, but you really just need to eat and gain weight"  Because it was too painful for me to eat or swallow, and everyone contacting me knew that fact, I felt really demeaned; but I learned from my oncology counselor to smile and  say "Yes, my medical team is working on that".  That ended the bull**it. right away, without insulting anyone.
It was nice to be in someone's thoughts, but it would have been better not to feel as if a judgment was required for sympathetic support of me and my cancer fight.

Re: Let's Discuss...Empathy vs Sympathy

Posted by Kuching on Feb 23, 2020 9:44 am

Yesterday, someone I hardly know did something really nice for me and my husband.  A volunteer respite worker, whom I have only met twice, asked me to email her a photo of my husband so that she could see what he looked like before the cancer ate most of him away.  I ended up sending her three photos, late Friday afternoon.  When I got to the hospital on Saturday morning, all three were printed and framed and sitting on his bedside table.  I don’t even know how she did that, but it was a truly wonderful thing to do.  It not only reminded me of what a good life we had had, but it let the hospital staff see  who they were actually caring for.  Even our GP had never seen my husband before he got sick, and took time to look at the photos and say how glad he was that he’d seen them.  I would say this thoughtful deed was definitely empathy, not sympathy.
FYI WestCoastSailor‍ , that’s an original Cape Dory dinghy, over 40 years old and still going strong.
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Re: Let's Discuss...Empathy vs Sympathy

Posted by JacquelineM on Mar 9, 2020 12:42 pm

Me: I am feeling so terrible right now.
Everyone Else: Well, you only have "x" number of treatments left and then you're done.
Me: But between the exhaustion, pain, skin and mouth sores, etc, I feel overwhelmed
Everyone Else: But you will be done this soon.

Not one of my supporters/friends/family/etc acknowledged what I was feeling.  All they wanted to do was tell me it would be over soon. 

Re: Let's Discuss...Empathy vs Sympathy

Posted by Lianne_Moderator on Mar 9, 2020 12:55 pm


I am sorry you are feeling like you are not being heard by your circle. I found the same when I was in treatment and for some time after. I think "they" think they are being helpful by pumping us up and trying to see the positive angle but what it often does is negate our own feelings. Thank you for expressing this. I for one understand and I know many others here do as well. We may not be able to take away the exhaustion, pain and  sores but we do understand it.


Re: Let's Discuss...Empathy vs Sympathy

Posted by JacquelineM on Mar 9, 2020 1:40 pm

Lianne_adminCCS‍ thank you. I know they mean well, but it has definitely been off-putting.  And definitely something I have learned from too!