Small-Talk Solution: What to Say to Well-Meaning Friends

When you’re going through chemo, one of the challenges that you’ll encounter is unintentionally negative comments—"Wow, you look better than I thought you would!" Or "I can’t believe you’ve missed so much work; my sister never missed a day—from friends and loved ones. But how can you tell them in a constructive way that their words hurt—without hurting them back?

Patricia Farrell, a psychologist in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, advocates standing up for yourself. “Sometimes educating people who say the wrong things is the way to go,” she says. “You need to set the record straight when something a person has said is hurtful and not helpful.”

Farrell suggests the following responses:

  1. False compliments. “You look much healthier than I expected!”
    What you can say: “Thank you for the kind words, but I know I don’t really look my best right now. I’m just concentrating on getting healthy again so I can get back to my old self.”
  2. Comparisons. “My friend didn’t have such bad side effects…”
    What you can say: “Everyone has a different reaction to chemo treatments, and while mine might be better or worse than your friend’s, I just hope in the end that the treatments make me cancer free!”
  3. Death and limitations. “You’re so sick—how will you continue working?”
    What you can say: “I’ve decided to live and enjoy every day the best that I can.”
  4. Anxiety-provoking comments. “I’ve been so worried about you!”
    What you can say: “I’m getting great care at the treatment center, and I have plenty of friends and family helping me out, so there’s nothing to be worried about. I’d rather think about all the things I’m going to do once chemo is over.”
  5. Treatment woes. “Chemo must be so difficult; I don’t know how you’re managing.”
    What you can say: “Chemo is hard, but I just think every day about how it’s making me healthier in the long run.”

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