What NOT to Say to Someone Going Through Chemo: A Guide to Sensitivity

A cancer diagnosis and the subsequent chemotherapy treatment is an emotional and physical roller-coaster for the patient. As friends and loved ones, we want to offer comfort, but sometimes, despite our best intentions, our words can miss the mark. Here's a guide on what not to say to someone undergoing chemotherapy.

1. "At least you get a break from work."

While it's true that many patients take a break from work during chemotherapy, it's not a vacation. They are navigating a challenging treatment, not enjoying free time. Depending on someone's job, their time away from work could require taking unpaid leave which often adds financial pressure.

Instead, try: "I hope the treatment goes smoothly for you."

2. "You'll look great bald!"

Making light of hair loss, a common side effect of chemo might seem like a way to lift spirits. However, for many, hair loss is a traumatic experience. Hair can be seen as part of someone's identity and their perceived attractiveness.

A better approach might be, "I'm here for you, no matter what changes come."

3. "I know someone who had chemo and they were fine."

Every person's experience with chemotherapy is unique. Comparing stories can minimize their feelings. For many, chemo is merely suppressing cancer growth. They may never experience being cancer-free.

Instead, simply ask, "How are you feeling today?"

4. "Is it really as bad as they say?"

This can come off as doubting their experience or the experience of others. Remember, for many, chemotherapy is grueling.

A more supportive question would be, "What has your experience been like?"

5. "At least it's not [a different type of cancer or illness]."

Comparing illnesses is not comforting. Every cancer and every treatment journey is valid and challenging in its own right. 

Instead, try: "I'm so sorry you're going through this."

6. "You should try this miracle cure I read about."

Offering unsolicited medical advice can be overwhelming and, at times, misleading. The healthcare industry is filled with all types of information, both correct and misleading. 

Trust that they and their medical team are making thoughtful decisions for their care.

7. "Stay positive."

While it's essential to maintain hope, it's also okay for the patient to feel a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, or fear.

Instead, offer a listening ear: "It's okay to feel however you're feeling. I'm here for you."

8. "Everything happens for a reason."

Such statements, while often well-intentioned, can feel dismissive. Implying their pain and suffering may have some unknowable purpose can be a discouraging concept.

A more empathetic response might be, "I can't imagine how tough this is, but I'm here to support you in any way I can."

9. "When will you be done with chemo and back to normal?"

This question can put undue pressure on the patient. Remember, recovery is a process, and "normal" might look different post-treatment. Their journey may require embracing a 'new normal' and grieving their pre-treatment goals and intentions.

Asking 'when' questions, can result in consistent "I don't know" responses. Anything beyond their current round of treatment could serve as a reminder about how much of their journey is outside their control.

Instead, ask, "How are your treatments going?"

10. "You're so brave."

While this might seem complimentary, it can also imply that they have a choice in their treatment. Many patients feel they are doing what they need to survive, not necessarily being brave.

A more neutral statement might be, "I admire your strength through this."

In Conclusion

Navigating conversations with someone undergoing chemotherapy requires sensitivity and empathy. While the intent is often to comfort, we should pause and think about the impact of our words. Being a supportive friend or family member is less about saying the perfect thing. There is no perfect thing.

It's more about being there, listening, and offering genuine care.

  • Published: Oct 23, 2023
  • Last Updated: Oct 23, 2023

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