Know Someone Having Chemo for Breast Cancer? What Not to Say

We'll help you avoid putting your foot in your mouth.

Health Monitor Staff
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Nine years ago, Haralee W. underwent six months of chemo for breast cancer. Exhausted, puffy from steroids and with no eyebrows, Haralee, 58, could never figure out why people exclaimed how great she looked. “I would think, ‘Really? How bad do you think I looked before chemo?’” she says. “It was astonishing to me they could say this, instead of a simple ‘Good to see you!’”

And for Haralee, the comments didn’t stop there: “Some people would talk about family and friends who had also been through chemo, noting that those same people had never experienced the treatment’s side effects or missed a day of work. I think they meant well and were simply looking for a way to connect,” she says. “But what they said diminished how I actually felt.”

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. 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—as Haralee notes, 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 okay 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, too, 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.
June 2011