Sympathy vs. Empathy vs. Compassion: Cancer Support and Where Each Fits

Sympathy vs. Empathy vs. Compassion: Cancer Support and Where Each Fits

Chiara Riga | April 27, 2022

Sympathy, empathy and compassion are likely all words you’ve heard used a lot within the cancer space. They might even be used interchangeably! But the truth is, they’re all different, and they each have their own unique role when supporting the cancer patient in your life. 


Sympathy is defined as pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Sympathy was likely one of the first things you felt when your friend or loved one told you they had cancer, but when it comes to expressing sympathy to the person you’re supporting, it can be complex. The last thing we as cancer patients and survivors want to hear is pity; it feels patronizing and will most likely make them feel worse. While sympathy is not something to be ashamed of feeling, it is an emotion that is best kept to yourself, or at least not shared with the person for whom you feel sympathy. Instead, channel those feelings of sorrow or pity into something more productive like empathy, compassion, and support. 


Empathy is defined as being able to understand and share the feelings of someone else. Where sympathy is seeing your loved one with cancer’s experience from your own perspective, empathy takes it a step further to see their experience by putting yourself in their shoes. When your friend is going through something as serious and scary as cancer, your first reaction may be to relate their current experience to something you’ve gone through in order to relate to their feelings.

If you have never experienced cancer yourself, though, there’s no way you can truly understand what they’re going through. What you can do, though, is listen to what they are telling you and really take it to heart, rather than trying to assume things about what they feel. When supporting the cancer patient in your life, it’s important to show empathy by listening to how they feel rather than assuming how they feel. 


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Compassion takes both empathy and sympathy and takes them a step forward; compassion is the understanding that someone is going through something incredibly difficult and then actively trying to alleviate the struggle they are going through. While sympathy and empathy both have distinct roles within the cancer support experience in their own right, we should all strive to be compassionate in every aspect of our support for our loved ones. There really is no such thing as good support without compassion. 

So what does sympathy, empathy, and compassion look like in practice?

Let’s say your friend had a PET scan a few days ago and they call you to let you know their results weren’t good and the cancer is growing.

The sympathetic response would be to shift your tone and body language to sadness, as that’s what her words make you feel, and tell them that you’re sorry for their PET scan results.

The empathetic response would be to shift your tone and body language to match their mood as you think about what they’re telling you about their feelings. An empathetic response would be to listen to their anger, fear, sadness, and frustration and tell them, “It sounds like this has been a really difficult day for you.”

The compassionate response would be to continue with your empathetic response by sharing their feelings and saying something like, “This has been such a difficult day for you today. Can I grab you dinner from your favorite restaurant to help you relax?”

It is clear that sympathy, empathy, and compassion all play a distinct role in your support of a cancer patient. Now that you know when each comes into play within the support experience, it’s time to start putting them into practice! 

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