Being diagnosed with cancer can be an overwhelming experience – a kind of sensory and mental overload. Finding out you have cancer can answer some very pressing questions, but it can also bring with it more new information than you can possibly deal with all at once. Suddenly, life-altering decisions need to be made, each with possibly permanent consequences, and what you choose to do can turn out to be a matter of life and death. A cancer diagnosis can also herald the beginning of a sometimes intrusive and often painful treatment process. There may be times when the intensity of the experience is overwhelming, physically and emotionally, and other times when the monotony and repetition is mind numbing and incredibly frustrating. In between all the struggles a cancer patient has to make the right decisions and ask all the necessary questions, dealing with emotions and managing physical issues, there are other issues to think about as well. One of the most pressing ones is how your having cancer is affecting other people.
When you have cancer, other people are something you think about a lot. You think about not upsetting them, which ones you tell what to, about seeing some and not others and asking certain ones to do certain things for you. You think about getting them all together somehow, and getting them all to leave you alone. Other people often bring with their good intentions and generosity their own feelings about cancer, their opinions about what should be done about it, and perhaps even some pretty strong ideas about ways they’re going to help. Sometimes they will help, a lot. But other times, the things people do can be a little bit confusing.
I was given some pretty random things when I had cancer, all of which were designed to help and make me feel better. One lovely lady who I understood to be into New-Age spirituality came to the door with a few pictures of unicorns and other fantasy scenes she downloaded from the internet “for me to look at” – sweet, but baffling. Another dear friend gave me a massive jar of vitamin powder, and then there were those two identical copies of the very expensive cure-yourself-from-cancer diet book. It would have been rude for me to refuse such generous gifts outright. I felt obliged to accept them, even though I never used them.
When you bring your friend with cancer a present, they will always appreciate it’s done with the best of intentions. If the gift is unsuitable however, the recipient generally won’t risk hurting your feelings by refusing your gesture. People may believe if they spend a lot of money on a gift, or if they believe it will help get rid of the cancer, it may be better received, but this isn’t always the case. Here’s a list of gifts, which, in my experience, you may want to think twice about.
Please do not give us a cancer-curing diet/meditation/affirmation book, particularly one we did not ask for.
These include books describing complex organic or raw food regimes, chanting certain affirmations or outlining daily prayer and meditation schedules. Whilst these diet and behavior modification plans may seem very practical and excellent to you, please consider that for most people a cancer diagnosis is a time of information overload. Our days may not be quite as empty as you think, and even if they are, we might not want to fill them with anything new. Also, however worried we may appear, providing us with more information will not necessarily solve our problems. As well, your choice of book will reflect your own values but may not reflect our own.
If you’ve heard about an alternative treatment, practice or theory by all means bring it up as a topic for an open discussion – and do this before you spent fifty dollars on the book and make a great gesture of presenting it to us. Allow the potential recipient of your gift the option to say “no thank you” or “yes, I’m interested” first. Instate them as their own gatekeeper when it comes to the information they receive. Besides, with so many other people telling them what to do, it may well be that they’d really like you to be one of the ones who doesn’t.
Please do not give us vitamin supplements, or alternative/herbal medications we did not specifically request.
There may be a very good reason we do not have these therapies in our medicine cabinet already. Many seemingly harmless and “natural” supplements and alternative treatments contain ingredients contra-indicated to mainstream medications prescribed to treat cancer. This means that even apparently innocuous tablets and tonics can work against prescribed treatments, and can even cause dangerous side effects such as blood clotting. Anyone under the care of a health professional must inform their practitioner if they plan to take vitamins or alternative therapies before they do so. It is unwise to offer your friend any additional therapies, supplements or medications without the patient having sought the advice of their health professional or clinician.
Please do not forward or print out that spam email.
If we could somehow get back all the wasted hours people have spent creating vexatious, inaccurate, over-sentimental and scare-mongering emails and social media status updates about cancer and channel them into something more positive I’m sure we’d have cured all the cancer in the known universe by now. These chain emails and cut-and-paste social media statuses can cause unnecessary worry, and are a very real emotional trigger for many people who have cancer or know someone with it. They can also contain wildly inaccurate information about cancer and its causes. Please don’t forward them, no matter how pretty the animations or harrowing the stories.
Other things not to give to someone who has cancer.
- Heavily perfumed toiletry/bath products. Some people become highly sensitive to scented toiletries or those containing certain ingredients when they are having cancer treatments. Once my own chemotherapy started I found I couldn’t stand certain smells I used to like. Before you buy, ask if there is anything they cannot tolerate or have developed an aversion to.
- Hats, wigs, headscarves or prosthetic items, unless specifically requested. This can be interpreted as overly familiar, or in bad taste.
- Books about people who either died tragically from or heroically survived cancer, unless specifically requested. They may not be as “inspiring” as you think.
- Stories about your fabulous new job, your imminent holiday to Bali, your new house or your being promoted into their position at work because they had to take leave to have surgery and chemo. Great news is a subjective concept. Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be.
- Anecdotes about new fake boobs, your facelift, the site of your last Botox or your liposuction scars. Stories about, and exhibitions of, unnecessary cosmetic surgical procedures can make a person who has endured life-saving and necessary surgical procedure feel a little bit cranky.
- A Bible, or other books about positive thinking, spirituality or life after death. Unless they’ve asked you specifically asked you for them, they may think you’re hastening them on to an afterlife.
- Sympathy cards. Yes, this really happens.
- A DVD copy of “Beaches”, or any other film where someone tragically dies of cancer.
Things you can give to someone who has cancer.
- Chocolate. They can always share it with others if they can’t have it.
- A nice bottle of wine – if they drink and are allowed alcohol. If they can’t drink it, again, they can share it.
- Something in their size, just not a prosthetic bra, hat, wig or headscarf.
- A book about anything other than cancer. Perhaps something by their favorite author, or a book they’ve specifically asked you for.
- Cards, notes and letters with sincere good wishes. Don’t get all maudlin and depressing, or make your correspondence into an opportunity to unburden yourself of all your sad feelings. Keep it light and heartfelt.
- Quilts – particularly the hand-made kind. My friends got together and made me a quilt, and I dragged that thing everywhere with me during treatment. I threw up on it, wrapped myself in it, showed it to everyone who would stand still long enough and then hung it up on the wall, where it remains there this day. A quilt can also be a wonderful gift for a friend whose outcome is not so promising. I gave a very ill friend of mine a quilt I made for him in his last few weeks of life. After he passed away, his wife had something lovely to take home from the hospital other than just his pyjamas and slippers.
- Blankets. Knee rugs. Pieces of beautiful fabric. Anything lovely you can keep warm inside and cuddle up to, or which you can make into something warm and cuddly, and can be machine-washed. I’m not personally a fan of soft toys, but go there if your friend likes them.
- A book of puzzles or word games, if they’re the puzzle solving type. There’s often a lot of waiting involved when you’re having cancer treatment.
- A journal and a nice, operational pen. A brand new book of art paper and some pencils or pastels. A disposable camera. Anything that will help them record their journey or share their story in their own way.
- A book with messages from friends inside.
- A gift voucher for two for their local cinema.
- The kind of bathing and moisturizing products usually marketed to geriatrics or small babies, and not because they have pictures of roses or lavender on the labels. Ingredients are key. See first on the list of things not to buy.
- A hot, nutritious meal, delivered to the door, with a phone call first. Just check they haven’t had four lasagna already that week.
Things to remember -
- A good gift helps, not hinders. If your gift is likely to add complexity to their lives instead of resolving it, think again. A quilt is good, but a gift certificate for a course of quilting classes over six consecutive Thursday evenings in the middle of winter on the other side of town is perhaps not so much. Give something that will solve problems, not create them.
- If in any doubt, just ask first. Your friend would probably rather be asked prior to your gift giving and forgo the surprise than have a less-than-happy surprise come their way.
 One exception I would make to the “no cancer book” rule is Quest For Life, by Petrea King. Petrea is an Australian leukemia survivor and therapeutic practitioner offering both a holistic and realistic approach to living – and dying – with cancer. I recommend her book, but as with any book you plan to give, please do some homework first then introduce the idea of the book via an open conversation before offering to purchase it.