Dealing With People’s Reactions to Cancer: From Empathy to Sympathy

I prefer when people respond with empathy when they hear about my wife’s death from cancer, though I’m often met with sympathy first.

When facing a hardship like a cancer diagnosis, or in my case losing someone to cancer, we must deal with the reactions from everyone we confide in.

Empathy and sympathy are emotions that are tied together and share similar aspects but have very different effects on those around us. The official definition for empathy is, “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy is a proactive reaction.

The official definition for sympathy is, “A feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.” Sympathy is a passive reaction. It does not initiate a proactive response, but is more commonly held internally by the outside observer.

In my experience, the most common initial reaction to cancer is sympathy, which can have the effect of magnifying hardship, as the “pity” aspect is the hardest part to deal with. Often this reaction leaves people with a need to comfort, while triggering prior events and feelings. Fearing that reaction, I've learned to hide or edit my stories to prevent this issue.

My daughter lost her mother at the age of 12. She has been manipulating her story since high school. As she explains it, she just could not stand people looking at her like some “wounded puppy.” She became an expert at subtlety and avoidance when it came to the subject of mothers — she was not outright lying, just never mentioning anything about her mother unless directly asked. And when asked her answer was followed quickly with the statement that there is no reason to feel sorry for her as she has accepted and is dealing with her loss.

Empathy is a much more helpful reaction, though it can be difficult to feel or express. When a person expresses empathy, they help others to feel heard, valued and comforted. I’ve realized that this will happen a little easier had the person lived through a similar experience to ours. But even that is no guarantee that sympathy will not be the initial reaction.

All we can do is to have open and honest conversations about our feelings and try to lead interactions with others towards the empathy that can help. We must express that we carry a strength to get us through and their understanding will help us in that process.

Ultimately, we cannot control the way people feel or how they react in certain situations. It just becomes part of our process in dealing with day-to-day life. We develop ways to compensate.

Some will do as my daughter has and limit sharing to only those she trusts. Unfortunately, there are those of us that withdraw and will not share, thus missing out on the support they might have received.

Others will do as I am doing: become advocates and share our story to bring a greater value to what we have faced.

Don’t feel sorry for me

And don’t you dare judge who I am

I am not a product of the past

I have a spirit that will surpass


I see the way you look at me

Solemn stare doused in pity

You’ve heard the story, but is it truth?

Exaggeration provided no proof.

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