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The Best and Worst Gifts for a Cancer Patient: Tips From a Survivor

Rebecca is a marine electrician and mechanic, and a published author. She was recently treated for an advanced form of breast cancer.


If a loved one, friend, or coworker is facing the challenging path of cancer treatment, we often give gifts to show we care. However, knowing exactly what to get can be daunting. The most common gift items can be outright dangerous.

For instance, a cancer patient’s immune system is often compromised—and the usual flower bouquets, which naturally carry pollens and fungal spores, may increase the risk of infection. Even a standard box of chocolates might not be the right thing due to temporary dietary restrictions and changes in appetite. Greeting cards are safe, right? Not always. A little later, I’ll tell you what many cancer patients really think about the common “get well” card, and what would work much better.

Key Factors to Know When Buying Gifts for a Cancer Patient

Treatments vary depending on the type of cancer a person is suffering from. This article focuses on the most common treatments with conventional, allopathic medicine.

Cancer treatments may include chemotherapy (a regimen of strong medicines usually delivered intravenously), radiation therapy, and surgery to physically remove tumors or cancerous tissues.

Many treatments can generate a temporary but unpleasant state of illness, hair loss, physical discomfort, emotional distress, and physical limitations. Learning what the common side effects are for your loved one’s particular courses of treatment will help you select the most sensitive and useful gifts.

Listed below are the common side effects of many cancer treatments. Understanding these, and which ones are relevant to your loved one, will help in the selection of a care package. For example, the common brands of soaps and skin lotions we take for granted can be painful on a patient’s skin or the product’s scent too intense.

Facing cancer causes emotional distress. Upbeat gifts like humorous books or movies help keep a patient's mind from negative thoughts.

Facing cancer causes emotional distress. Upbeat gifts like humorous books or movies help keep a patient's mind from negative thoughts.

Common Side Effects, and How They Affect Gift Choices

  • Acute skin sensitivity and dryness: The effects of chemotherapy and radiation cause dermal sensitivity. Conventional body care products containing perfumes, artificial additives, and chemicals can be painful and will burn delicate skin.
  • Sore oral tissues: tender gums, mouth, and tongue: Standard off-the-shelf toothpaste, mouthwashes, and stiff bristle toothbrushes can hurt. Even simple things like cough drops that contain eucalyptus oil, citric acid, or menthol will bring tears of pain to a patient’s eyes.
  • Increased olfactory sensitivity: A patient’s sense of smell may be temporarily dysfunctional during treatment. Scents that we normally enjoy might trigger nausea, and perfumes or the smell of cleaning products can be harsh on the lungs and nasal passages.
  • Compromised appetite and dietary restrictions: Chemotherapy especially will alter our once healthy appetites. Our favorite foods may not be favored during treatment. If a patient’s side effects include increased sensitivity to the oral tissues, eating crunchy treats like crackers and nuts, or anything spicy is out. Many patients also avoid sugar during treatment.
  • Loss or partial loss of ability to taste: A box of chocolates? Cake? Many chemotherapy regimens temporarily damage the tongue’s surface and food often tastes like unappetizing wet cardboard.
  • Temperature swings: Patients often feel chilled during and after a chemo session. Depending on the cancer type, women may experience hot flashes and menopause-like symptoms (most common with treatments for breast or ovary cancer).
  • Awkward physical limitations: Recovering from surgery will temporarily reduce mobility. Sleeping can be difficult due to the inability to rest in certain positions. Surgical drains, compression bandages, and general physical discomfort during healing will limit our movements.
  • Changes in emotional state: This is a vital factor to consider. Facing cancer and its treatments is outright scary. Some chemotherapies influence hormonal balance and can cause moodiness or feelings of depression. This is when your friend or loved one needs you the most. See the list below for gift ideas that consider a patient’s emotional well-being.
  • Financial damage and potential loss of work hours: Cancer is expensive. It also can take a patient away from earning an income if they’re too ill to work. If they can work, productive hours are still reduced due to time off for treatments and the constant visits to the clinic or doctor’s office. Gift cards from the local grocery store or department store help immensely. Many communities provide some financial aid to patients with monetary concerns. The gift of your time by helping a patient locate resources and aiding with the mounds of paperwork that tends to accompany applications for aid is an extremely helpful gesture.
Coloring books are popular gifts for their stress relieving benefits

Coloring books are popular gifts for their stress relieving benefits

A List of the Best Gift Ideas for a Cancer Patient

  • Personal blanket
  • Natural cleansers with no synthetic ingredients or strong perfumes: Simple soaps crafted from coconut or vegetable oils and mild essential oils are excellent. These are usually found in health food stores.
  • Unscented, natural lip balm: Avoid lip balm containing petroleum derivatives, perfumes, menthol, and mint or peppermint.
  • Natural moisturizer for dry skin: It is crucial that a simple, non-synthetic lotion be used. Forget the mainstream brands that claim to be “hypoallergenic.” These contain petroleum products and are harsh. Body butters containing natural ingredients like coconut oil, cocoa butter, jojoba, and/or aloe oil, and pure essential oils are excellent. Like the soaps, these are found in health food stores.
  • Scarves or a cheerful knit cap: (if hair thinning or loss is expected)
  • Books, magazines, comics, or crossword puzzles: If the patient likes to read or enjoys the mental exercise of puzzles. A good book is a good escape and gives a reader something to look forward to.
  • Movies: DVD or digital movies help pass the time. Comedies, a favorite TV series, documentaries, and things that make us laugh are great.
  • Coloring books and coloring supplies: Actual studies revealed that coloring provided positive therapeutic effects to cancer patients. The simple, peaceful activity allows a person to zone out and keeps their mind from negative thoughts. In my local cancer clinic, even the nurses use coloring books to de-stress after a long work shift.
  • Gift cards: Luxuries like a spa treatment or essentials like grocery, gas, or clothing are welcomed treats.
  • Antibacterial, alcohol-free, and perfume-free cleansing wipes for sensitive skin: Many patients will need these for the most intimate areas. And these areas are the most sensitive.
  • Personal size Kleenex: Many treatments cause watery eyes and/or a constantly drippy nose. Pocket-sized tissues are very useful.
  • Gentle antibacterial hand gel without harsh perfume.
  • Socks with fun, bright patterns. To keep the feet warm during hospital stays or while in a chemo chair.
  • Personal pillows: Very practical after surgery and the individual needs to prop his or her body in certain positions to get a decent night’s sleep. Also handy during hospital stays or in a chemo chair.
  • Coffee/Tea mug with fun, upbeat patterns or sayings.
  • Stuffed animals: Something soft to hug is a morale booster for young patients and many adults are receptive to these fun, cheerful items.
  • Your friendship and love: Compassion, the friendship of another human being, is the best gift of all.
A handmade card by Emily Cromwell. Making your own cards or finding upbeat ones like this are far better than the standard "Get Well" card.

A handmade card by Emily Cromwell. Making your own cards or finding upbeat ones like this are far better than the standard "Get Well" card.

What to Avoid Giving a Cancer Patient

What not to give a cancer patient hinges on their treatment protocol and the severity of side effects. Chemotherapy and radiation can temporarily suppress the immune system and make a patient more susceptible to infections.

  • Avoid flower bouquets if a patient is or will be experiencing immune system changes. Pollens and natural fungal spores can put a patient at risk and their increased sensitivity may make them more allergic than normal. Bright, cheerful silk flowers or paper crafts are great substitutes.
  • Avoid anything containing synthetic perfume.
  • Avoid generic snack or candy baskets until you know the patient’s dietary restrictions.
  • Canned “get well” type cards don’t seem to go over well with cancer patients. The get well message only reminds a patient of the long, frightening process they face. Fellow patients have told me that these cards, though well-meaning, make them feel depressed. I’ve seen one woman reduced to tears after receiving one. Instead, cards containing cheerful messages of love and friendship, or something silly and off the wall- depending on the patient’s personality- are much better received.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Misty Ridge on February 16, 2020:

This was very helpful, thank you

Carol Morris on October 06, 2019:

This is an amazing article and full of great and useful information. My mom has cancer, we're just at the beginning of our journey, so this is great. Wishing you very good health.

Wendy Moore on April 12, 2019:

Thank you for your great video on Best and Worst gifts for a cancer patient. I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year and after a lumpectomy and now undergoing radiation therapy. A friend of mine, a breast cancer survivor herself, gave me a pack of products 'Moo Goo' a range of skin products recommended, particularly for those undergoing radiation treatment. This has been a wonderful gift which I use every day to moisturize my skin against radiation burn.

Leslie Brown on January 08, 2019:

This is my second time dealing with cancer. three years ago I had non Hodgkin's lymphoma now breast cancer. I am enjoying this website and have passed along information to a few friends. Thank you. In the two years I was cancer free I made up various baskets for people I knew that were heading for chemo. It gave me great satisfaction to be able to help someone that was going through this. . I have now added to my baskets , but still inject a little humor as well. That is what got me through the first time.

Robin Rene Lewis on June 19, 2018:

As a cancer patient (uterine) I did not like Get well cards, loved your words instead, also the people who came to visit me at my home, all but 1 women I didn't know surrounded by bed with prayer before my surgery was such a welcomed event and to think most of them didn't know me. Amazing. You are spot on about the ribbon colors. Love your mugs and blanket ideas and especially what they said. Thanks for a very informative video. I'm sending anyone reading this, An Extra boost of Comfort!

Jeanette on June 12, 2018:

I had Two lumpectomies and my coworker bought me silky pajamas which made it easier to get in and out of bed.

Lori on August 17, 2017:

My friend has just started treatments. I appreciate all the great ideas and what to avoid

gwen on June 19, 2017:

this is such a help. We are making a basket to send across the country because we can't go ourselves. It is important to send things she would like and will be able to use. thanks

Eva on June 15, 2017:

Very helpful information. Thank you

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 30, 2017:

This was helpful for those who need guidance and want to show they care.

Erin on December 19, 2016:

Thanks for this. It was very helpful! I almost sent a huge bouquet of flowers!

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