Small-Talk Solution: What Not to Say to Someone Having Chemo

Going out with a friend a few years ago, Haralee W., who had recently undergone six months of chemo for breast cancer, was a little put off when her friend remarked, “You look fabulous!” Exhausted, puffy from steroids and missing her eyebrows, Haralee, 58, knew she didn’t look her best. “It made me think, ‘Really? How bad did you think I looked before chemo?’” she says.

Many people undergoing chemo have similar experiences—well-meaning friends and family who are unsure of what to say, inadvertently causing the chemo patient to feel, well…worse.  

And Patricia Farrell, a psychologist in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, says hearing comments that make you feel badly can actually have an impact on your health. “Negative thoughts, even those brought on by other people’s careless remarks, can lower your immune system,” says Farrell, author of How to Be Your Own Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide to Taking Back Your Life. “Unfortunately, many women feel obligated to be accommodating and fail to insist on boundaries in conversations.” 

If you’re speaking with someone who is currently undergoing or recently underwent chemo treatments, unintentionally negative remarks are easy to avoid if you know which topics should be off-limits. Stay away from:

  1. False compliments. Like Haralee, there’s a good chance someone undergoing chemo doesn’t look her best and she knows she doesn’t look her best. Compliments on her appearance will sound disingenuous and diminish the value of any real compliments you might want to give her. If you still feel the need, try remarking on something specific, like her outfit, a new piece of jewelry or her new lipstick shade. Compliments are also not the only way to make someone feel good—simply saying you’re happy to see the person can be enough. 
  2. Comparisons. Everyone’s treatment experience is unique, and remarking that one friend of yours had terrible nausea could provoke unnecessary anxiety, while saying someone you know had no side effects can make the person you’re speaking with feel like a “whiner” if she is experiencing them. However, it is OK to say something hopeful, like, “My other friend went through chemo, and now he’s living a happy, healthy life again.” 
  3. Death and limitations. Instead, emphasize optimism and positive outlooks, says Farrell. Don’t make assumptions that the person undergoing chemo is going to retire, stop working or quit extracurricular activities. “Encourage your friends in chemo to plan for their futures,” she says.
  4. Anxiety-provoking comments. Saying something like, “I’m so worried about you!” will only make the person think they should be worried. “Anxiety is contagious,” says Farrell. “The fear-laden concerns of the speaker immediately get transmitted to the chemo patient who is already stressed out enough.”
  5. Treatment woes. Skip comments like, “Chemo must be so hard!” or asking if it makes them feel ill all the time—chemo patients may already be feeling blue, lonely or beleaguered about their treatment and don’t need confirmation that they should be feeling that way. Instead, Farrell suggests an upbeat comment, such as, “I give thanks daily that there’s chemo, which is helping you get better.” It's also important to encourage your loved ones to see the value of developing new interests and friends.

  For Caregivers

Help Your Loved One With 'Chemo Brain'
8 Ways to Show Your Love
What Not to Say to Someone Having Chemo
Make Long-Distance Caregiving Work
Delight a Loved One Going Through Chemo
Get Your Loved One to Eat During Chemo
Keep Intimacy Strong

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