When someone we care about is going through a challenge like cancer, we want to do something (thus the oft-offered: “let me know if there’s anything I can do!”)….but what?
I’ve said right from the start that the emails, texts and social media messages showing support are incredibly valuable, especially when there is no pressure to reply or answer a list of questions. You can also continue to check in the same way throughout the process – I find that a message of care always seems to pop up on my phone at just the right time. (Or pop up in front of me, like the young woman I ran into at the hospital who stopped me to say that she was following my story, loves my posts and is rooting for me. It made my day.)
For those looking for further ideas for more time-intensive or tangible shows of support, I’m sharing some suggestions below. Just to be very clear, I’m not requesting these; (in many cases they are gifts or gestures I’ve received, or ones I’ve given in the past) but want to give you ideas moving forward for other loved ones in your life.
If you can, offer to do something specific: “I’m running to the grocery store after work. Can I grab anything for you?”
If it weren’t COVID time right now, with extracurriculars cancelled and mixing of bubbles discouraged, I know offers to chauffeur my kids would be great (e.g., to sports or music) or to get them out of the house (lunch, movies, or simply inviting them over to hang out), and I have certainly appreciated offers to drive me to radiation and other medical appointments.
“Acts of service” is my love language, and I’ve had people deliver my library books, my poinsettia order from Liv’s school fundraiser and Eva’s spirit wear, and have asked a friend to take Eva’s Scrunchie Co. parcels to the post office, just as a few examples that helped lighten my load.
Another friend offered to take over the parish Facebook page for me, which I gratefully took her up on, and I asked someone to run my virtual book club for a month so I could focus on my recovery which was also a great help.
I’m going to start with flowers and food, because interestingly enough, as I was in the process of writing this post (suggesting both of those items as gift options) I came across a piece from another breast cancer survivor who was adamant about the fact that you shouldn’t give either! Here are my thoughts: flowers and food can be safe (and much appreciated) gifts if you know your audience and in many cases check in advance.
Flowers are not recommended for those going through chemotherapy (there’s a risk of infection), and some people can be overwhelmed by having to put cut flowers in a vase or deal with dying floral arrangements (this can be especially triggering for those with a less hopeful prognosis) but I can tell you I love having something bright and fresh on the island or dining table, especially when it comes in its own vase or container (and I don’t mind that they die – I prefer flowers to plants that I’m expected to keep alive indefinitely!) All that to say: everyone is different.
Food can be tricky because of allergies and intolerances (or in my case, being very picky) plus chemotherapy can take a real toll on appetite and taste buds, and some people just aren’t comfortable eating food made in other people’s homes (particularly during COVID). It can then be stressful and guilt-inducing when food isn’t eaten and goes to waste. We were very lucky that the kind people who gifted us with food knew what would work for our household: baked treats (muffins, cookies, scones), simple freezer meals (lasagnas, macaroni & cheeses, casseroles, soups) or even all the goodies required for a family movie night (that was a cool gift – I had been missing my Cineplex nacho sauce)! We received a lovely fruit basket too as well as enough chocolates and candy to keep our Cancer Candy Cupboard well-stocked. (While some cancer patients are on restricted diet, I am aiming for moderation which still includes some sweets.)
My husband’s work team gave us a week of Hello Fresh meals which we ordered between Christmas and New Year’s when we were all going to be home together. The girls cooked the delicious meals with my husband and it was an experience gift as well as something tangible. Eva actually said it was a highlight of her holidays!
Because of COVID, coming in to visit when dropping off food (or anything else) hasn’t been an option (though my husband has gone out for a few driveaway visits with kind friends doing dropoffs) but even once mingling is safe again, it’s still nice to give the option that you’ll just leave the item at the door. As an introvert at the best of times, I definitely didn’t want to make any small talk on my down days, but someone more social might really be craving a porch visit.
With both flowers and food (or anything else really), don’t feel like you have to be first out of the gate – others will be thinking the same thing and there are only so many places to put flowers and so much room in the freezer. (We have a large chest freezer in the basement and I was grateful that people asked in advance about dropping off meals, as I asked several people to keep us in mind later when we had made room!) Even now, nearing the end of radiation, I appreciate how items keep trickling in seemingly right when I need them the most, and cancer treatment is definitely a marathon, not a sprint.
Now, what about drinks? I read an interesting Twitter thread about how you should never gift alcohol (in general, not related to cancer) without being absolutely sure the recipient would welcome it. I’m not much of a drinker and don’t drink wine (the most commonly gifted type of alcohol) but family members do and it’s easily saved to serve to guests (or even regift!) I don’t actually drink coffee or tea either and have received those gifts too but again they can be shared with others and I really do think it’s the thought that counts. Also, many gifts are meant for the whole family (as something like this impacts more than just the person going through it): one of my husband’s friends did a gift basket for everyone in the house to enjoy which included beer – clearly meant for him – which was very thoughtful!
Gift cards: I always suggest this as a teacher’s gift, and disagree with those who think it’s impersonal (what could be more personal than the student who gave me a gift card for the little independent nail salon that I always go to?) and I will throw it out here again as a great gift for someone going through cancer or any other struggle. While I am fortunate to have the sick leave and benefits plan that I do, many cancer patients face financial struggles, and gift cards can be a huge help and provide an element of control over what’s purchased. Some ideas: restaurants (actually my go-to gift for bereavement as well because takeout always makes life easier), grocery stores, frozen food shops, coffee shops, gas stations, cleaning services, bookstores, Netflix/Amazon Prime or even a Visa/Mastercard gift card to really leave the choice of purchase to the recipient (which might be a hospital parking pass or prescription refill).
Gifts that keep giving: Because of the timing of my diagnosis, I was gifted with two Advent calendars (Lindor and Friends) which were fun as they lasted for 24 days. I also shared an Instagram post about a couple of other very thoughtful gifts that keep giving.
Relaxing gifts: I received some great items from this category including candles, bath bombs and salts, homemade magic bag, essential oils Zen roller, soaps, lip balm, cozy socks and hand cream.
Boredom basket: If you’re doing a group gift (from the office, hockey team, book club, neighborhood), consider asking everyone to contribute small items to one basket. Our school staff always does a “boredom basket” for someone home for medical reasons, which can include any of the other items mentioned in this post, but gives everyone the option of contributing anonymously in a comfortable price range.
Religious items: This is another “know your audience” category, but I’ve really appreciated things like a book of serenity prayers and small religious ornaments. My husband’s sisters had a very special religious gift for me which I plan to detail in a future Instagram post.
Personal touches: My kindergarten partner Sarah made a video of the kids in our class wishing me well and telling me they miss me – when you see batting eyelashes and hear a cute little voice saying “I love you!” it’s hard not to feel better. As some of you know, my 12-year-old daughter Eva reached out to a number of family and friends (the ones she could find on Instagram) and made a 13 minute video of support which she showed me the morning I began radiation, and that’s worth way more than anything she could have bought me. The girls also ordered me a Cameo video from Jillian Harris wishing me well in my recovery. When you know someone well, you may have some unique ideas of more personal things that might make them happy: instead of a traditional recovery gift, my aunt dropped off more pieces of my good china set that she found at Value Village!
Cancer-specific items: These are particularly meaningful if you’ve been through something like this yourself. I received some specially-made breast pillows from a fellow teacher and breast cancer survivor as well as a notebook to keep track of appointments and medical information from someone else. Even messages from breast cancer survivors (I’ve received several through snail mail, email and social media) are really valuable to someone who needs to know that it’s possible to come out on the other side of this.
To wrap up, just a note about thank yous: I think no matter what the circumstances, it’s nice for a recipient to acknowledge the gift and thank the giver. That said, when it comes to cancer or some sort of a challenge an individual or family may be facing, I do think that simple email or text thank yous are just as acceptable as a formal written note sent by snail mail. I swear I have so much appreciation for everything that’s been done for me, but don’t have it in me to write out cards – and in many cases, track down mailing addresses. I double-checked with my etiquette expert friend, Lisa Orr of Orr Etiquette, who even adds that in cases like this the giver shouldn’t judge if something isn’t acknowledged at all, because “the recipient may not have the energy (physical or emotional) to even send that text/email and that’s ok too. The gift shouldn’t place extra burden or guilt on someone you’re trying to support.”
What are some of the great gestures or gifts you’ve given to or received from loved ones? I’d love to hear your ideas!