Compassion Corner: Terminal Cancer Patients Offer Their View of Compassion and Empathy Versus Sympathy

Compassion [kuhmpash-uhn] noun
A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Compassion Corner is a weekly series from Patient Worthy that will focus on the subject of compassion in the healthcare and rare disease space. In this series, we explore the role of compassion in this field and what it means for caregivers, patients, and others.



A report by the National Institute of Health (NIH) offers the definition of “compassion” as meaning to “suffer with.” It is defined by an awareness of another’s suffering, but unlike “empathy,” compassion is a desire to relieve that suffering.

It has been reported in neurological studies that being a witness to someone suffering will activate the brain’s own neural pathways.

Compassion is An Essential Part of Patient Care

In order to have a better understanding for future research, cancer patients’ experiences and preferences towards empathy, sympathy, and compassion were studied. A prior study by the NIH suggests that patients view compassion as a response to a person’s needs and suffering by way of understanding and subsequent action.

The study protocol was approved by Calgary University’s Research Ethics Board.

The fifty-three participants were eighteen years of age or older with terminal cancer and a life expectancy of under six months. The participants were examined for cognitive impairment. They provided written consent. The interviews were conducted at a major urban hospital.

The patient interviews supplied data that was analyzed by an independent team of researchers.

About the Results

Patients generally described sympathy as unwanted and as a lack of understanding.

 Empathy, on the other hand, was judged by most patients as the ability to be understanding and acknowledge the patient’s feelings. The researchers identified two types of empathy:

  • Affective empathy is defined as having the same elements as cognitive empathy. However, affective empathy has the additional element of understanding by “feeling” the other person’s suffering.
  • Cognitive empathy is a detachment whereby the understanding of a distressed person’s needs results from his or her sense of duty.

Compassion’s proactive response and sincere attempt to relieve suffering set it apart from empathy and sympathy. Authors Choden and Gilbert, in their book Mindful Compassion, approach the three emotions from a Buddhist point of view. In their opinion, sympathy is an emotional reaction minus thought or reflection.

However, the authors view empathy as more complex involving intuition and awareness.

Compassion has also been marked by three R’s:

  • Recognition of suffering
  • Relating to people’s suffering
  • Reaction to suffering

The healthcare profession is reaching out to patients by delivering person-centered diagnosis and treatment.

The three emotions identified in the studies are often used interchangeably. However, patients experience these emotions deeply. Their perspectives should be understood as being unique. Healthcare providers should respond above and beyond simply delivering services. They should react to their patient’s needs and values. This will provide a guide to present care and future reform.

Rose Duesterwald

Rose Duesterwald

Rose became acquainted with Patient Worthy after her husband was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) six years ago. During this period of partial remission, Rose researched investigational drugs to be prepared in the event of a relapse. Her husband died February 12, 2021 with a rare and unexplained occurrence of liver cancer possibly unrelated to AML.

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