Empathy and Cancer

Empathy: the ability to understand and share feelings with another.

I recently read a blog written by an older woman who had a cancer scare that she had to deal with on her own. Her husband had passed away from cancer and she had had enough of it in her life. Her feelings are understandable. Two mammograms directed her to an ultrasound. The ultrasound triggered a biopsy. Her timeline read very much like mine did. One test after another was given with heightened urgency. Everything was fast tracked for this woman because the doctors were worried about the outcome of tests. She didn’t know how she would do cancer alone. Thankfully, this woman did not have breast cancer. Of course, I am glad it turned out this way for her.

She said her experience gave her empathy for people who are alone.

Hello?

I’m sure this fellow writer is a lovely woman. Supporting someone through illness is hard. Losing him/her to that illness is excruciating. I do not diminish her pain because I know it’s real. I can empathize with her because I have lost people in my life. Cancer takes too much.

I am confused though why empathy needs to be directed toward people who are alone. Is aloneness somehow lesser than togetherness? Do my experiences when I spend time with friends, family, or a group of people give me empathy for people with partners? They do not. I may at times feel a little thankful to be back home and away from some of the stimulation and unwelcomed opinions, but I do not have empathy for people in a relationship. It sounds absurd when the shoe is on the other foot.

Somehow the comment rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed more bothersome to me that she felt empathy for people who are alone than for people who have cancer. I just kept scratching my head. It felt like pity or that someone was feeling sorry for me. I don’t want someone’s sorrow. Her remarks made me feel like she was saying, “Thank goodness I didn’t have cancer and the double whammy of being by myself!” This is more of an inner reflection than what was likely intended. I guess being on my own is a bit of a touchy subject for me, mainly of how I feel society perceives it as something less. I feel like I’m regularly defending my status. Sometimes I feel forgotten. Having cancer and being on my own really isn’t so hard. For one thing, I am reliant on myself and can organize appointments, etc. in a way that works best for me. I don’t have to check with others when I need to change my plans. I know how I feel and I don’t need to try to convince or explain those feelings to someone else. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I wish I had a little more help and didn’t have to figure everything out. And I do have help. I have plenty of support. I ask for what I need. I feel connected to so many and have nurtured meaningful relationships. Technically, yes, I am doing cancer on my own, but I’m also not. It’s complicated.

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” ~ Brené Brown

Enjoy a short clip from YouTube where Brené Brown explains more about empathy.

I am not sure I’ve done all those things in my reaction to what I read. This post itself has been difficult for me to write. I have felt angry and questioned those feelings. However, it is completely okay, in fact it is fine, more than fine, for me to feel anger. I feel misrepresented. I feel there are indirect implications that are at my expense while someone else is expressing gratitude. Gratitude is not gratitude if someone (or another group) is put down in order for another individual to feel grateful. Nor is it empathy.

Empathy means a lot to a person whether they have someone at their side or they are on their own. Empathy is a universal yearning we all need and we all have the capacity to give. You are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It still isn’t quite the same because at the end of the day you put your own shoes back on. Still . . . there are moments when you almost get it. The important part is that you try to get it. I have beloved friends who try to get it.

One of my goals with this blog is to change perspectives on cancer, particularly advanced stage cancer. When I read something that feels a little, “Oh, that poor person has cancer and is alone,” I don’t like anything in that sentence because that feeling of pity permeates whatever sentiment is trying to be conveyed.

It doesn’t feel good.

What feels good is being welcomed to a group. I’d rather hear a compliment about something amazing I accomplished instead of a question on whether I went with anyone while achieving it. It feels good to be appreciated for my other qualities. It feels good to be included in things. If I’m unable to do something, then I may need to pass, but I appreciate being included. I like it when people remember things about me and respect my thoughts and opinions. I like it a lot when I’m not constantly asked about my health and truly treated like one of the gang. A small bit of thoughtfulness goes a long ways. It is how I believe we all can treat one another respectfully and compassionately.

Empathy in action is a lifestyle choice.

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Taken at the UW-Arboretum in Madison, WI.

It’s possible I’m confusing empathy with sympathy, but I don’t think I am. In fact, I think some other people are. I certainly don’t want anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. It belittles and demeans if directed at me because I’m living with cancer. I want an even playing field. Don’t give me something or take something from me because of my health. Don’t give me something or take something from me because I’m single. I didn’t ask for your sorrow or pity. I’ve asked for your encouragement, support, and friendship. These are the things I offer.

There is something else you can give me: caramel. If someone were to offer me a caramel, I would not say no. Really good caramels are an entirely different story. It just might be an edible form of empathy.

Empathy is feeling as sad for a friend as if the event were happening to you. It’s understanding your friend is in a lot of emotional or physical pain. Empathy is understanding a perspective that’s the polar opposite of yours. Parents and teachers demonstrate empathy every time they know that something that isn’t a big deal at all really is a huge deal to a child. You show empathy to me when you understand that I may cancel plans, not feel one hundred percent, and don’t ask me a laundry list of questions. It means a lot to me when you share something hard in your life rather than me always explaining my latest hurdle that I try to embellish with a little humor thrown in for good measure.

Empathy is not making comments along the lines of “It’s too bad you had to get cancer.” Yeah, I just don’t know what I was thinking when I was in the cancer store. It isn’t empathetic to tell someone what he/she feels. Neither is telling someone what he/she needs to do to fix what is deemed not right (health, job, loss, etc.). Empathy is not putting someone down or saying things could be worse or that he/she should feel grateful. The words “at least” aren’t used at all. Please don’t tell me to live life to the fullest because tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. What many people don’t understand is that I’m running from that stupid bus every day. These things seem obvious to me, but I’ve heard them all. Perhaps the intention isn’t to show empathy, but to show something far less kind. I can’t figure it out.

And empathy definitely is not knowing what it might be like to have cancer and be alone because you had a scare and everything turned out just fine. You put your own shoes back on and walked on.

Empathy is something we all need and we all have the ability to give. At best, we understand what it’s like to be scared, perhaps terrified about our health and our future. We understand all the “what ifs” that run wild in our thoughts. We understand that disease can be a very lonely place to live. We can relate to one another that our upsetting news, event, or circumstance may be completely different from another person’s struggle, but that they are the same in that they are unsettling, frightening, and possibly very lonely feelings. We understand people are doing the best they can with what they have. Empathy connects us to one another. Through empathy we can share with and support one another. IMG_1836

I can empathize with those feelings.

I am not alone.

You are not alone either.

Consider replying:

  1. Where have you seen empathy alive and well in your life?
  2. How do you best handle situations when someone is not empathetic?