You just found out someone you care about was diagnosed with cancer. It is totally natural to want to support them in any way you can. Finding out someone you love is suffering, ill, and facing treatment is a hard pill to swallow.
Jump ahead to these sections:
One way to show them you love and care about them is to get them a gift, but choosing the right gift can be tricky. You don’t want to offend or make them feel worse. You certainly don’t want to buy them something with all of the best intentions only to find out that it ultimately made things worse.
We’ve put together a list of the worst gifts you can give someone with cancer and why they’re problematic. We’ve also shared some thoughtful alternatives that have been a slam dunk with the survivors in our lives.
What Makes a Bad Gift for a Cancer Patient?
When your friend confides in you that they are fighting cancer, there are several things to consider before giving a gift.
- Physical side effects. Skin and stomach sensitivities are just a few physical side effects of cancer and cancer treatments. Anything that could trigger nausea or vomiting is a bad gift idea.
- Emotional side effects. Cancer takes a huge emotional toll. Consider how someone might be feeling emotionally before choosing a gift. Anything that might make someone feel worse about themselves or cause even more burden should be avoided.
- Health concerns. Some gifts, like massages, while very well-intentioned, can actually be harmful to someone whose immune system is compromised due to cancer and treatments.
Worst Gifts for Cancer Patients and Their Alternatives
Here is a list of some of the worst gifts you can give someone fighting cancer, and appropriate gifts you can give instead.
1. Articles and advice
One of the worst gifts that you can give a cancer patient is books, articles, and advice about fighting cancer. What foods to eat and not eat, what alternative treatments to seek out, or an article about how their partner can move on once they’re gone.
These types of gifts, though often well-intentioned, are worthy of a giant facepalm. Leave the care and advice up to the person’s doctor!
Alternative: Instead, give them a book they’ll love. If they love architecture or fashion, give them a book filled with beautiful images. If they’re a sucker for inspirational stories, a book full of positive messages is the perfect option.
If you know they could use a good laugh, get them a book written by their favorite comedian. They will likely have lots of time to enjoy a good book between treatments and resting.
2. A pet or a plant
Don’t get your friend something that they have to care for or keep alive. There’s no telling how many days in the hospital they have ahead of them or what their life is about to look like.
Flowers and plants can also cause infection in some cancer patients who are immunocompromised.
Alternative: Instead, get them some beautiful art or decor in their style to brighten their space and let them know you love them. You can find dozens of already-framed prints online and ship them to their house with a thoughtful note.
3. Perfume or scented toiletries
While a lavender-scented, relaxing bath set is a very thoughtful gift, it’s not a good idea for someone undergoing treatments that can cause nausea. Scented items can also cause skin and immune-system issues for someone who’s system is hypersensitive due to chemo or radiation.
Alternative: Unscented self-care items are the perfect alternative! You can even get bath sets made specifically for cancer patients, or go the DIY route and buy them a natural unscented body wash and a pack of unscented colorful tea lights.
Similarly to scented gifts, food items or baskets should also be avoided for cancer patients who may be experiencing unpleasant side effects from treatment.
Alternative: If you want to help nourish them, a wonderful alternative is a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant, grocery store, or online delivery services, like DoorDash or Uber Eats. This way, they can choose something that they love that will sit right with their stomach.
This is also a great gift because it could potentially feed their caregiver, who is likely in need of some good nourishment as well.
Join Cake's monthly newsletter.
Learn all you need to know about end-of-life.
5. Alternative treatments
As aforementioned, leave the treatments to your friend’s doctor. They are likely already overwhelmed with options. While you might know someone who was miraculously cured by essential oil or holy water, your friend is likely already exploring all of the different treatment options they feel comfortable with.
It can be frustrating for someone battling cancer to also have to fight with a well-intentioned friend over treatments they don’t feel comfortable trying.
Alternative: Quality time and a listening ear are a much better way to support your loved one. Be there for them to listen, laugh, cry, or for whatever else they may need.
6. Hair coverings
Hair coverings are not the ideal gift for someone who has recently been diagnosed with cancer for a few reasons.
- They may not undergo treatment in which they lose their hair.
- There’s no telling if or when they lose their hair what type of hair covering they’ll choose. Some people go for scarves or hats, while others prefer wigs.
- Because a hair covering is something they’ll wear every day, it’s best to let them choose something that aligns with their personal style and taste.
Alternative: Instead, send a thoughtful care package. You can put some comfort items into a basket, or buy a premade care package from a company that specializes in cancer gifts such as chemo care packages.
7. Sexy clothing
If you have a friend undergoing treatment for breast cancer, you may think that getting them something to bring their sexy back is a good idea. While well-intentioned, this can feel like a slight or a difficult reminder that a sensitive part of their body is under attack.
Alternative: Instead, gift your friend comfy clothing, slippers, or a pillow and throw to help them feel cozy and taken care of while undergoing treatment.
8. Get well cards
A pre-filled, stock ‘get well’ card can feel too impersonal. It might even make someone feel pitied rather than cared for.
The only exception to this is if you are having everyone in the office fill out a card for a coworker. It’s still a good idea to encourage everyone to write a short personalized note in the card!
9. An annual pass
Even though an annual pass to a museum, zoo, gym, or amusement park is generally a very thoughtful and generous gift, we suggest choosing something else when it comes to cancer patients.
They may not feel up to so much action and adventure and could feel pressured to make use of the pass before it runs out.
Alternative: If you like the idea of a longer use gift, consider a streaming video subscription, like to Amazon Prime video, Hulu, or Netflix. Your friend will likely have lots of time to watch shows and movies during treatment and recovery. This is a great way to help them keep busy and hopefully laughing!
10. A vacation
Unless your friend has decided not to undergo treatments and is feeling well, an extravagant vacation is probably not in the cards.
Alternative: However, a staycation can be a wonderful choice. Give your friend and their partner or caregiver a date night or fun experience. Make sure it’s low-key and something they enjoy doing. It can be something as lavish as a night in a local hotel or as simple as a movie or game night at their place or yours.
11. Bucket list experience
First of all, just because someone has cancer, it doesn’t mean they’re dying. Even if they are, this is not something that you want your gift to remind them of. Unless they have specifically asked for help funding or supporting their bucket list, don’t buy them a skydiving excursion!
Alternative: Instead, buy them something to keep them entertained when they are undergoing or recovering from treatment. A puzzle book, tablet, or gaming device is a gift that will keep on giving. It helps to have something to distract yourself and stay entertained when your chair- or bed-ridden.
12. Tickets to a sporting event, concert, or movie
This kind of gift is likely too much for someone who is fighting cancer. This might work for someone who is in remission or not currently undergoing treatment. If someone is in the thick of things, skip gifting them a big event.
Alternative: Instead, consider a special and personalized gift such as a signed baseball or photo of their favorite athlete or musician. You can even get personalized videos from celebrities who can send your loved one well wishes. Are they a reality TV show fan? Some of the Real Housewives will make a video for you for $25! Now that’s a fun and thoughtful gift your friend will surely cherish for a lifetime.
Give From Your Heart and Consider the Caregiver
The most important thing you can do when choosing a gift for a friend who is fighting cancer is to give from a place of love and generosity of spirit. Be thoughtful, follow this guide, and remember that it’s okay to say sorry if you goof up.
Jamie, a friend who is fighting cancer, shared, “I wish people would have considered my wife, Andrée when buying gifts. She was my caregiver and needed some major TLC too.”
Jamie also let us know that she got a “chemo kitten.” So while we generally recommend against pets, this demonstrates that the perfect gift entirely depends on the person you are gifting. If you don’t know the person extremely well, follow this guide to the T. If you know your person intimately, be thoughtful and loving, and you won’t go wrong.
As Peter, another friend and cancer survivor, told us, “What is most important is that people give out of love. That is much more important than the actual usefulness of the gift itself.”