Gift Ideas for Someone With Cancer

Photo by asenat29

Photo by asenat29

I’ve toyed with writing a blog post on the topic of gifts for a cancer patient for a long time, but haven’t because it’s a little tricky. It would be impossible to list everything I’ve received and yet, I’m terrified of leaving some out. The generosity that has flowed my way has brought me to tears many times over. It’s overwhelming and every bit of it made a difference. Some gifts were more useful than others, but all made me feel loved and supported and in turn helped me cope — what could be more useful than that?

Also, before I begin, I want to acknowledge how privileged I am to have good health insurance, a comfortable home, and a supportive family. Many patients lack one or more of these and their diagnosis can send them into a financial tailspin. Cancer patients are more than twice as likely to file for bankruptcy than people without cancer. If you know someone who is struggling just to cover the basics, helping out with financial needs (for example by organizing or contributing to a “Go Fund Me” type campaign) must take priority over other sorts of gifts. Of course, even in these situations, or perhaps particularly in these situations, a thoughtful, if not purely practical, “‘lil sumthin, sumthin” can do wonders for someone’s spirit. The ideas listed below range in price from $0 to $50+. As with gift-giving in general, always consider the recipient’s needs as well as your own budget.

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Alright, with disclaimers out of the way, let’s begin.

Food is the most common gift for anyone who is sick. Food is a lovely gift. By all means, if you like cooking, then please, drop-off some food. However, be aware that many cancer patients have food restrictions (e.g. my medication precludes grapefruit and pomegranate and I’ve also been advised to avoid a whole host of other things) — we can be serious pains in the ass to cook for. If cooking is not your thing, it’s ok to let that meal sign-up sheet pass you by. Chemo nausea and mystery casseroles do not pair well. I may get my Jew card revoked for saying this, but there are ways to express love and support other than via food.

Often the best gift to give is something you uniquely have to offer. Are you in the medical field? Maybe you can help make connections to specialists, interpret lab reports, or research the avalanche of suggested treatments flooding in. Are you a masseuse, a reiki, other type of energy worker or just someone who doesn’t mind giving someone else a foot rub? 30-60 minutes of your skills can make a world of difference to a body that’s been assaulted by cancer treatments. Are you a neatnik who likes to organize stuff? Between my newly limited abilities, and the stream of visitors after my diagnosis, my house was in chaos. Someone came over and spent a few hours folding laundry and organizing my linen closet. It may seem like a small thing, but it made me feel so much better.

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If you don’t have some unique skill to offer, here is an (incomplete!) list of some items I’ve really appreciated [note: Some of these links are Amazon affiliate links].

Cancer-related books — My two favorite cancer books so far are Radical Remission and Anti-Cancer. Radical Remission is full of hope for even the bleakest diagnoses, and Anti-Cancer has a lot of practical, well-researched suggestions. Also, there are two popular cookbooks The Cancer Fighting Kitchen & One Bite at a Time that take into account the special dietary needs of cancer patients. I know one patient who bought these books for a couple friends willing to cook recipes from them for her, which I thought was a stroke of genius.

Non-cancer-related books — Upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, it’s as if the whole world drops away and suddenly everything revolves around cancer. Books can offer a little respite from this, especially ones that offer levity or escapism. Some books I’ve enjoyed include: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Hyperbole and a Half, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Bossypants, and Yes Please! for humor, and the Outlander Series for escapism. (Note: if someone isn’t feeling up to reading a book, you can try magazines, or even set them up with audiobooks or podcasts to listen to while lying very still and trying not to puke.)

Greeting Cards — It’s always nice to receive an old-fashioned card in the mail. Any card will do, from drugstore bargain rack cards to gorgeous handmade ones. As long as they convey a nice sentiment, they make my day and I’ve kept them all. However, I have to say that these are especially awesome.

Angel Cards — You have to know your audience with a gift like these & these. I’ve got a streak of “alternative hippie” in me, so I’ve really enjoyed them. All the cards have positive messages, so you don’t have to worry about pulling something scary. When cancer leaves me feeling at the mercy of forces well beyond my control, it’s nice to think there are positive forces out there as well. If angels are too “out there” to consider, but you like the idea of a positive deck of cards to pull inspiration from, this pack by cancer survivor Kris Carr looks nice.

One of my "Jewish Malas"

One of my “Jewish Malas”

Mala beads — As long as we’re in the hippie vein, I’ll mention mala beads. Mala beads are beads that have traditionally been used as a tool for meditation. They are made with 108 beads, a number that has some significance in the Hindu and/or Buddhist traditions. I found it fortuitous that 108 is also a multiple of 18, which is a sacred number representing Chai/Life in Judaism. Google it, and you’ll find many places to buy mala beads online. Kris Carr recommends this store and they do have some lovely ones, but are pricey. I bought one from someone on Etsy, and then I also ended up making a few of my own “Jewish Malas,” where I put dividers every 18 beads and chant the mantra “Oy vey” over and over. Just kidding about the mantra. The truth is, I’m terrible about using my mala beads for their intended meditation purposes, but I nonetheless like to wear them as a sort of talisman or as “worry beads” to hold whenever I go to a medical appointment.

Essential Oils — Some say essential oils have all sorts of healing properties. I’m not really sure, but I do like the way they smell. I use lavender oil to help my daughter sleep. I carry Young Living’s Thieves Spray as a natural alternative to the Purell-type cleansers to ward off germs. And, I’ve stashed a rollerball vial of 21drops’ “Calm” in my purse, which I especially like to use when I’m stuck in medical buildings that reek of odors that bring back memories of my time in the hospital and infusion center.



Zentangle & Adult Coloring Books — If meditation and doodling had a baby, it would be called Zentangle. Zentangle is supposed to promote relaxation, focus and inspiration. A friend of mine gifted me with a lesson from a CZT (Certified Zentangle Instructor–yes, that is a thing). Because I enjoy arts & crafts and struggle with traditional sitting meditation, I find Zentangle really appealing. If you can’t get a lesson with a CZT, try this book or this book to get started. Don’t forget the pens, paper & shaders.
As much as I enjoy Zentangle, sometimes my perfectionism gets in the way. When I find myself obsessing over how to perfectly draw my own Zentangle, I know it’s time to set it aside and let someone else do the designing for me. Adult coloring books to the rescue! If you haven’t gotten the memo yet, adult coloring books are all the rage right now, and I have jumped on the bandwagon. Sometimes sitting down to meditate feels like a punishment (I know, I know, I’m doing it wrong), but somehow sitting down to color with a pretty book and a rainbow of pens or pencils always feels like a treat. I have this one and this one, but really, the options are almost endless.

Music — I have one friend who works as a professor, but moonlights as a DJ (how awesome is that?). She put together an extensive playlist for me which I listened to during infusions and walks around the neighborhood as I built my strength back up. She included all sorts of stuff, even some comedy routines. As a fitness instructor, I have a robust music library, but it’s always fun to hear different things that someone else has compiled for you.

Felted wool finger labyrinth

Felted wool finger labyrinth

Arts and Crafts — Since I’m a crafter myself, perhaps I’m especially receptive to artistic gifts. I received handmade hats, scarves, blankets and quilts and they all exude love and remind me of the givers when I use them. One unique homemade gift I received was a beautiful felted wool finger labyrinth that started my love-affair with labyrinths in all forms. I’ve walked them in a few locations, and I now carry one on my keychain. I’m even considering whether I can fit one in our backyard (they offer yet another way for me to achieve the calm and focus that meditation purportedly achieves without requiring me to sit still … are you detecting a pattern yet? I really struggle with sitting meditation!).

Tea — Cancer patients are often counselled to drink green tea daily. Additionally, I drank a lot of ginger tea to combat nausea during chemo, and now I drink dandelion root tea quite a bit. One friend sent me a couple tins of her favorite tea along with a ceramic mug from a local artist. I love using that mug. It feels good in my hands, encourages me to drink my tea, and reminds me of her thoughtfulness.

Cozy PJs and loungewear — Illness = a lot of time spent in bed. A perfect stranger who came across my blog sent me some super soft PJs that her daughter (also a cancer survivor) picked out. Another friend gifted me with cozy socks like these.

Gifts for the kids — Having a parent with cancer has got to be among the most scary and stressful things a kid can face, and yet, they’re often lost in the shuffle. I am so grateful anytime someone can help ease their burden. If you’re local, the best gift you can give is to look out for those kids, give them extra hugs (even if it doesn’t look like they need it — believe me, they do), reach out and invite them to playdates, come over for a game night, bake cookies with them, take them on a trip to a local park (anything, really, to give them some relief from a household now upturned by illness). If you’re not local, send a fun toy or book for the kids. I guarantee that the sick parent will appreciate it every bit as much, if not more, than if you sent them a present directly.

Filing System for Papers — This may sound dull, but it was one of the most useful things I received in my first few weeks after diagnosis. A friend showed up at the hospital with a binder, some dividers and a 3-hole punch. My mom immediately got to work organizing the already mountainous stack of papers. It was such a relief and help to be able to corral all these important documents.

I can’t end with something as mundane as “Filing System for Papers,” so for the Grand Finale…

Poo-pourri — Ok, I’m just going to say it. If you think chemo doesn’t sound appealing going in, then you really don’t want to know what it smells like coming out. A friend in the know dropped off a bottle of “Poo-Pourri.” It’s a great product, and honestly, they deserve your business on the strength of their marketing schtick alone. They’ve expanded their line to include new scents like “Deja’Poo,” “Poo La La,” and “Trap a Crap” (how’s a girl to choose?). And, don’t miss the hilarious promo video on the homepage. You’re welcome.

One last thought. Gifts are really nice, but nothing brings home the importance of the non-material things more than a life-threatening diagnosis. Phone calls, emails, virtual hugs on Facebook, actual hugs from visitors, prayers from friends and strangers alike, from any and all belief systems, people who show up when the chips are down, and keep showing up even after the initial crisis shifts into a new twisted normal … these are all things that matter deeply. These are the things that sustain me. To all the people who have been there for me, from people who’ve known me for years, to people who only know me online, I hope you know who you are and how much you matter to me. I am so grateful. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.