Gift Ideas from Survivors

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: November 28, 2012

When life becomes precious it is, indeed, the thought that counts. These thoughtful gift suggestions and memorable gift stories come from our friends who've been there.

Alysa Cummings, OncoLink's Poet-in-Residence and breast cancer survivor, shares a sweet memory of neighborly kindness.

Thinking back four years ago to the holiday season, I had just had surgery #1 and was gearing up for chemo infusion #1. The leaves had all changed color as they do this time of year and fallen quite dramatically. Overnight, it seemed. Leaves were everywhere; so many in fact, that they totally covered the lawn. You just couldn't see the grass anymore. And I remember looking outside and thinking, "I wish I could go out there and rake the leaves." Such a normal thing to think about doing, and after a cancer diagnosis and a body altering surgery, I certainly was hungry for anything that smacked of normal. But with bandages and drains and stitches, totally out of the question.

Moments after I had that thought, I spotted one of my neighbors in my backyard with one of those excellent leaf blower contraptions. It took him over an hour to clear the back and front of my house, and create impressive mountains of leaves at the curb. This unsolicited kindness - the gift of a "leaf free" yard - unasked for, delivered without fanfare - was the gift I remember most vividly. Later that same night, his wife came over with a baked apple pie to sweeten my memory of their collective kindness even more. That's what I call a gift of the season and I will never forget it.

Visit Alysa's Fill-In-The-Blanks Poetry maker on OncoLink to create a gift of poetry.

Diana Dyer's, Cancer Survivor, shares how her family and friends pulled together to help her family during the holidays.

I have been on chemo during December. It was the pits. I remember lying on the floor in my PJs watching my kids open presents because I was too weak to sit up. However, my friends did many lovely things to get me through the season. Here are just a few:

  • They shopped for my kids' presents.
  • They wrapped the presents.
  • They made and decorated cookies.
  • They conducted two birthday parties for my kids both of whom have birthdays during this time.
  • They helped my husband buy and get all of our decorations up and pull together a festive Christmas meal.

My family was all long-distance. They helped by not expecting us to travel during this time. They also did not travel to us. Yes, it was lonely, but the extra people in the house, extra fuss for food, etc., would have been too much for us. We had long phone calls on Christmas day after opening the gifts.

With my first breast cancer, I was hospitalized over Thanksgiving in a medical center quite a distance from my family and friends. A very good friend gave me a small stuffed animal (baby swan or cygnet). While that may seem like a strange gift for an adult, I found it very touching and soothing. First of all, my friend was one of my "birding" friends and she knew how important swans were to me. Secondly, for much of my stay, I was all alone in a strange environment. Having that soft stuffed animal to hold and stroke gave me a connection to my friends and family, my other life. Although I am not Catholic, I think it gave me a little bit of insight into the importance of holding Rosary beads during times of concern and worry. I still have that cygnet in its place of honor. And whenever I have had friends in the hospital with cancer, I have given them a small special stuffed animal to help them hold on and link to their other life, their friends and family who will do anything to help them.

Cancer survivor, Margaret Tobin's gift suggestions highlight a new appreciation for life.

I think that most people, when they get over the initial shock of a cancer diagnosis, realize how wonderful and precious life is. Any gift that helps a patient appreciate life, and especially life with family and friends, would be nice, I think. In that light, I would suggest the following:

  • Offers to take the person under treatment to any outing he or she would enjoy and is capable of going to would be appreciated. If the patient lives in the city and enjoys nature, take him out for a drive in a beautiful area of the country. If she lives out of the city and would enjoy a quick outing into town, take her for a drive into town. Any activity should be adjusted to the energy level and stamina of the patient, but anything one is sure the person loves and can do, would likely be appreciated. If he or she can sit through a movie, take the person out for a movie. In all of these cases, though, it would probably be wise to check with the patient and possibly the physician as well, to see whether such activities are OK.
  • Friends and relatives who live too far away to visit and can only call occasionally, might want to make a "positive" video of themselves saying hello and send it to the patient.
  • Something I enjoyed during my treatment was the get well cards one of my friends sent almost weekly. They were really hilarious, upbeat cards, and I enjoyed reading them and having a good laugh. Whether the patient likes humorous cards or those with a more serious tone, sending cards with messages appropriate for that person would be appreciated and enjoyed.
  • If the patient has very little help at home, seek out ways to assist with daily chores without being intrusive. During cancer treatments, many people may have a low energy level, and so stopping over to help, but then sitting and talking with the person for over an hour, will probably tire the person out. Visits should be short. A group of my friends got together when I was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, and they organized a cooking schedule, whereby a different person would bring a meal by the house every day. I am divorced, and while my mother was at the house during that time, the five children with me could be overwhelming for her, and so these meals from friends really helped. Also, depending on how close one is with the patient, simply taking on other tasks, such as laundry, or getting the trash out to the street on "trash day" would be very helpful. Does the patient have children in school, who might need to go to the library or pick up some school supplies? If a spouse or no one else at home can do this, then friends might offer to run these errands too. During summer, see about cutting the grass. My neighbor brought his mower over and did my yard every time he did cut his own grass, when I was getting treatments. (OK, so that last one does not apply to Christmas, so how about shoveling walks when it snows?)
  • Most of all, remember that the cancer patient is indeed alive, so keep up a positive attitude with him or her. Do not ignore the disease itself, since it is subject frequently on the patient's mind, but remember that the patient can still enjoy family and friends, and most of the usual discussions you would have with him or her.
  • Most of all, I think simple gifts and inclusion in as many activities as possible, as long as the person is up for them, is the best one can do during the holiday season. Maintaining contact and helping the person stay psychologically healthy are gifts in themselves.

Christine Clifford, founder of The Cancer Club, shares her thoughts on supporting a loved one with cancer.

I was diagnosed with cancer on December 19th (also my youngest son's birthday) and had my surgery for breast cancer on New Year's Eve. Unfortunately, "cancer has its own calendar". So I understand the additional stress and depression that affects cancer patients and their families on top of the normal holiday blues. Below are a few suggestions from a Chapter entitled How to Support a Loved One With Cancer, from my book, Cancer Has Its Privileges: Stories of Hope & Laughter, will help your loved one with cancer have a wonderful holiday season — one that shall forever remain etched in their memories as one of their best...

Cancer at Christmas...Could the Timing Be Any Worse?

Plan to do something for the patient to acknowledge the holidays despite their protests to the contrary. Bring over a small tree, a wreath for the door, decorations for hospital rooms or homes. Help address and mail holiday greeting cards, and the biggest gift of all? Take the decorations down after the holiday season comes to an end!

Create Holiday Cheer at the Hospital for Your Loved Ones

Facing surgery during the holidays can be very depressing for the entire family. Organize a "comfort party" at the hospital or home, complete with carolers and holiday treats. Bring food and beverages along with a holiday guest book for visitors to sign.

Cooking for Comfort and Holiday Cheer

The thought of cooking a holiday meal at the end of the day after having treatments can send even the most positive cancer patient into a downward spiral. Bring a holiday feast, complete with a holiday tablecloth and napkins. Come bake cookies for the day and let the aroma of freshly baked treats fill the house with the smells of the season.

Create a Concert for the Heart

Music can help relax any cancer patient and help take their mind off upcoming treatments or surgery. Post operation, it can soothe anxieties and help patients fall asleep. Bring over some holiday music or arrange for a musician to come play the piano, guitar or just sing carols for the cancer patient. The patient will appreciate the gesture and may even hum or sing along!

Christine Clifford, CSP, is the author of four books including Not Now...I'm Having a No Hair Day! And Our Family Has Cancer, Too!, written especially for children. Her company, The Cancer Club, offers over forty holiday gift items for cancer patients including books, videotapes, audio cassettes, PC Software, custom jewelry, t-shirts, ornaments, posters, etc. Visit The Cancer Club or order Christine's books at:

Don't forget to laugh! 1-800-586-9062

Doug, three-time cancer survivor, and his girlfriend Dana had these gift suggestions.

  • A Manicure or Pedicure - to pamper the person physically
  • A Massage - to pamper the person physically
  • Journals for reflecting on the experience
  • Make your own pottery gift certificate - can be very spiritual and relaxing
  • Yoga passes - total relaxation with a spiritual twist
  • Contribution in someone's honor to a non-profit organization
  • Movie passes or other certificates - so that people can get out of the house and do "normal" activities

Nancy, a 31 year old colon cancer survivor shares these gift ideas.

  • A book sent to me entitled, "The Victoria's Secret Catalogue Never Stops Coming - and Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer" by Jennie Nash was helpful. It was comforting to read about some else going through a similar situation and it also helped to pass time.
  • Audio books & movies because when your really sick you can't read and it helps to pass time.
  • I was given a Game Boy with Tetris from a friend and I played it while I was getting treatments and while I was laid up, that really passed the time.
  • I really thought about getting the Clapper at one point, you know it turns the lights on and off, so I wouldn't have to get up!
  • I loved doing crosswords so my Mom and fiancée bought me a few books.
  • PJ'S are always fun - you get sick of sitting around I the same thing all the time. My mother must have bought me 20 pairs!
  • I think that if anyone I ever know goes through this I would get a big basket and fill it with Movies, game books, magazines, music, HARD CANDY (helps get rid of the metal taste), a nice lotion (I went through so much).
  • Gift certificates for a cleaning service once a month. I think that might be a little expensive, but you could do it with a group of friends or volunteer to clean. Maybe on a day when the person is at treatment, so they come home to a clean house.
  • Socks and slippers and robes as these are your major fashion accessories.
  • I would have loved a massage so maybe a gift certificate for that.
  • The most helpful things to me were cards people sent me. My friend Dani's Mother sent me a card EVERY week and so did a friend of my parents. It sounds so small but it really puts a smile on your face to think people are thinking of you.

Cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, Tonya Ghant suggests giving the gift of life.

When I was diagnosed with leukemia, I learned that without a marrow or blood stem cell transplant, I would mostly likely die. But the best Christmas present I received the year I was diagnosed with leukemia was a gift from a total stranger- a man who had volunteered with the National Marrow Donor Program to donate marrow or blood stem cells. Since no one in my family was a suitable donor, we turned to the National Marrow Donor Program to find a potential volunteer. Just a few days before Christmas they found a matching donor for me.

I know now how lucky I was to have found a donor. Marrow transplants require matching certain tissue traits of the donor and patient. Because these traits are inherited, the most likely match for an African American patient like me was an African American donor.

I was really surprised to hear that the NMDP had found a donor for me because I was told I had a combination of tissue traits that was uncommon.

I learned through my experience that there is a great need for donors from diverse backgrounds to join the National Marrow Donor Program Registry, so that more patients can receive this potentially life-saving treatment.

I encourage you to consider giving one of the following gifts this year:

  • Register as a potential volunteer donor with the National Marrow Donor Program. Not only African American patients, but patients of all races and ethnicities search every day for a matching donor. Anyone between the ages of 18-60 and in good health can become a volunteer donor. To learn more, see the National Marrow Donor Program Web site.
  • Donate blood or platelets regularly, because most cancer and bone marrow transplant patients need blood products during their treatment
  • Make a financial contribution in honor of someone you love and you can help ensure that all patients have the necessary resources to access life-saving blood stem cell transplants. Your gift to a patient assistance fund at The Marrow Foundation will cover uninsured transplant-related expenses such as housing, medications and childcare that are critical to successful treatment. Make your online contribution to a patient assistance fund, or for more information contact The Marrow Foundation at (202) 638-6601

Learn more about joining the registry!


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