With possibly the strangest Thanksgiving of the last 50 years behind us, many of us are turning our attention to the holidays. (Unless, like me, you put up some of your decorations prior to Thanksgiving because you needed a little Christmas, right this very minute.) If you have a cancer patient in your life, you might be completely stuck on what to give them. Never fear, I’m here to help you, and like Oprah Winfrey, I’ll provide you a list of my favorite things, with a little help from my friends. Sorry, I won’t be giving out cars. I’m not sponsored. Though if there are any takers, I’ll gladly promote you!
GUIDING GIFT PRINCIPLES
First: do a bit of reconnaissance. To provide a gift which is thoughtful and helpful, details are needed to fill out the whole picture of the person’s treatment. Consider things like:
- What is their treatment plan? Does it involve surgery, chemo, oral chemo, etc.? What side effects are they having?
- Do they have basic needs cared for? Do they need help with bills, meal train, gofundme, etc.?
- Are they using any additional therapies? Are they receiving acupuncture, using salt tank floats, etc.?
You can always run a plan by them so you make sure they’re medically cleared to accept your gift. Awkward, I know, but something like, “I’d really like to treat you to x for Hannukah. Is this something you could use right now?”
Second: they might not want anything “cancer-y.” For example, women with breast cancer might not want a pink ribbon on everything. Consider what they enjoyed in their lives pre-diagnosis, because that person is still there under all the patient stuff they’ve needed to endure.
Third: tell them not to write a thank you note. Better yet, tell them they are under no obligation to use what you gave them. This takes the pressure off of the recipient to feel gracious.
SOMETHING THEY WANT, SOMETHING THEY NEED,
SOMETHING TO WEAR, SOMETHING TO READ
Thinking about gift-giving in this way with categories is really helpful, so that’s how I’ve broken it down below. These suggestions are not only from me, but also from other awesome patients who were kind enough to give me their own suggestions when I sent out a call on instagram.
Something They Want
- Gift card for a streaming service. You can get Spotify for music, Hallmark Christmas movies, Disney+.
- Headphones. This is especially helpful when treatment floors or machines are loud.
- Pampering. Go for unscented lotions since many fragrances can be bothersome or effect the skin. You can even research oncology massage in you area.
- Virtual makeup lesson. This is a great gift for patients who are looking to get some confidence back and can offer skills like how to draw on eyebrows, etc.
- Low-energy ways to spend time. Puzzles and color by sticker books are two of my favorites.
Something They Need
- Cash. Cancer is expensive; let them decide where it’s best spent.
- Gift cards. Food delivery services like Doordash or Grubhub, grocery stores, gas stations are all great, practical ideas.
- Donation to research. I recommend checking Charity Navigator first to see where your money goes.
- Water bottle. Staying hydrated when in treatment is super important.
- Port pillow. If the recipient has a port, it will keep a seatbelt from rubbing up against the it. If you’re crafty, here’s a tutorial to make one on your own.
- Mastectomy pillows. For a recent mastectomy patient, these are insanely helpful in keeping the arm lifted away from the torso. There are also patterns and tutorials to make your own online.
Something to Wear
- Alaska Bear Silk Sleep Mask. One of my friends swears by this. She said it is insanely comfy and helps the wearer nap in a bright infusion room.
- Hygge Jacket. This is a small business that I learned about while attending CancerCon 2019. What’s awesome about this jacket is that it allows for port access without taking the whole snuggly layer off.
- Blankets. I especially recommend heated blankets or weighted blankets.
- Socks. I loved wearing fun, cozy socks to treatment! You may want to consider getting slipper socks or something with a non-slip addition to the bottom if the patient is a fall risk.
- Cozy hats. Especially if hair loss is a possibility, this is a great choice. Having a bald head means you’re really chilly! I really like the company Love Your Melon. Their hats are super cozy and they do lots of great things for the pediatric cancer community.
- Cozy, soft clothing or pajamas. Are you sensing a theme? Go cozy! If the patient has had surgery to the chest, like a mastectomy, look for things that have buttons that open in the front. If the surgery was in the abdominal area, go for long nightgowns or sleep shirts so there’s no pressure to that area.
Something to Read
*Consider audiobooks to give tired patients a break. Also consider the nature of the book. Does the patient want to read about other cancer stories? If not, you may want to stick to fiction. Also, peruse the book and make sure it doesn’t center on death.
- Better Together by Jessica Walker. This book features a variety of perspectives from patients with lots of different diagnoses. (You might spot a familiar name in there!) What I love about this book is that it reinforces the idea that there is no one “right way” to do cancer.
- Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler. This book so honestly captured the experience of diagnosis and treatment that I needed to put it down and take breaks from it. Kate is a spectacular writer and human. If you’d like to preview what the book is like, you can check out her TED Talk.
- Fiction of the pure escapism variety. What’s better than dropping into another universe? My friend Annie sent me a box set of Philippa Gregory books. I also like returning to young adult novels because they’re quick reads and sometimes more uncomplicated.
- It’s Because Love Big Hug Blanket and Love Heals journal. What is a blanket doing on this list? This blanket comes with tags that the patient’s friends and family can write on or decorate. It gives them something to read when snuggling up at home or in an infusion chair. They also have an amazing Love Heals Journal, which you can fill with messages of love and support for the patient to read.
- Personal letters, poems, etc. to read when needed. I have so many cards on my fridge or in a box that I open when I need some extra love. Taking a few minutes to put pen to paper gives the recipient something to treasure forever.
- Jar of positive messages/quotes. This is an idea from a cancer friend. You can write or print messages or quotes on slips of paper, then put them in a jar. You can even get crafty with the jar and decorate it. This would make the perfect gift for someone who is in-patient, because it brightens up their room and reminds them they’re loved.
*Do not forget the caregivers. They have a thankless job and need their own care, too.
- Lend a hand. Offer to babysit. Take care of the leaves in their yard or snow in their driveway. Ask if they would like a meal train set up, or drop off dinner.
- There Is No Good Card for This by Emily McDowell and Dr. Kelsey Crowe. This book provides amazing advice on how to empathize with a patient. I recommend you read it first, and then pass it along to the caregiver, who can then pass it on to any relatives who need a primer in what not to say.
- Immune support products. Emergen-C packets, hand sanitizer, tissues are all great because the caregiver needs to stay healthy despite their challenges.
- Gift cards for coffee. Caffeine is the unsung hero of the cancer experience.
- Hire a cleaning service. My friends gifted me with this and let me tell you, my apartment has never been cleaner. My tired self was so relieved to lay on the couch without looking at dust.
- Cancer Cookbooks. The two I love are The Living Kitchen and Cancer Fighting Kitchen. Both come with great recommendations for recipes that help with side effects. They also suggest how to change the taste of meals if the patient’s sense of taste is altered, which is really common.
If you want to celebrate the patient, or just show them some extra love, ask if they’d like a virtual gathering. Ask the patient to choose the date, and offer them a solid out: if they’re not up for it, let them know there’s no problem and you’re happy to reschedule.
- Christmas Celebration. One of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received were boxes of Christmas decorations and cash to buy a Christmas tree. I just had surgery and I was exasperated, bouncing from doctor to doctor, and broke. I still get misty eyed when I take those boxes downstairs and hang them, knowing what love was put into the gift. If it’s not December, who cares! Throw a Christmas in July gathering. Drop off ingredients for frozen hot chocolate and wear red and green on the call.
- Wig Party. If the patient has recently lost their hair, consider throwing a wig party. Buy a look from amazon and show up on the call looking like Sydney Bristow from Alias. Consider naming the wigs and coming up with silly alter egos.
- Pajama Party. Ask everyone to show up in their pajamas! You can remind everyone how to play MASH, play music so folks can dance and sing into a hairbrush if they wish, or maybe even a fun remote game of truth or dare. There’s nothing that quite compares to reliving your childhood memories.
- Movie Night. This got me through my year of infusions last year. With a program like Netflix Party or Disney+’s GroupWatch, you can all watch a movie synchronously. I sometimes prefer the old fashioned way: hit play at the same time! It’s even more fun when you text your way through it. For bonus points, make sure everyone has popcorn.
- Game Night. JackBox games are especially fun to play. All you need is Zoom and a Party Pack to host!
It can feel daunting to know what a cancer patient would like to receive. It is especially nerve-wracking when you’re afraid of buying or saying the wrong thing. My suggestion is to just be honest! Say things like, “I’d love to buy you something that makes you feel special or makes your life easier. Here are some things I’m thinking about. Do any of these sound like something you’d like?”
At the end of the day, know that your kindness and generosity will go a long way.