My brother spent a lot of time in the hospital after being diagnosed with colon cancer. The hospital is not a happy place, but I am sure I don’t need to tell you that. It is like living in a dressing room at a department store—those horrible fluorescent lights and a kind of funky smell. Do you know what I mean? Now picture that one of your child’s annoying beeping toys is in the dressing room, which is what a vitals monitor sounds like, and that is pretty a much a hospital. Oh, and now imagine you or someone you love is suffering. Makes trying on a pair of jeans seem not so bad, right?
Anyway, I was with my brother a lot during those trips to the hospital. As my brother’s only sibling, I found myself filling various unique roles in his care. I inhabited the small space between his wife and my parents who were too struck with grief to manage certain logistics, and all the people who loved him but were not in the room, metaphorically and actually.
Of all the roles I took on, however, one of the most challenging was managing the friends and family who needed to be kept updated of the goings on of my brother’s digestive system. One question I received over and over again was, “What can I bring for Jesse?” This came from close relatives to friends of friends who barely knew my brother. It is a beautiful thing about human nature, the desire to lessen a fellow man’s suffering.
I recognize that picking out a gift for a cancer patient can be stressful. So, here are just a few suggestions from things I learned along the way. Consider it my gift from my brother and I to you.
1. Headphones. Cancer patients typically spend a lot of time receiving chemotherapy treatment. Cancer treatment centers are not entirely miserable (aside from the fact that everyone has, ya know, cancer). The one my brother sat in had a couple dozen lounge chairs clustered in groups of four or five around televisions. There was practically no privacy. Looking around I would notice that almost everyone was listening to something. A pair of nice headphones is a great gift. Those crappy ones that come with your iPhone kill my earbuds after 30 minutes, let alone six hours.
2. iTunes, Audible, or Netflix gift card. If I am going to suggest headphones I guess I should point out that gift certificates for things they can listen to is also a good idea. A list of podcasts or audiobooks for them to check out would be cool too.
3. Cozy socks. Yeah, socks. Like, the crappy gift your aunt gave you for your birthday when you were 12. If they will be staying overnight, find the socks with the treads on the bottom since most cancer patients are considered a “fall risk” and might be required to wear these during their stay. Not very glamorous, but definitely practical.
4. Anything comfy. You cannot go wrong with comfy. A throw blanket, a nice shawl, a cashmere scarf, one of those neck pillows people wear on planes. Some cancer patients sit for a long time while they receive chemotherapy. Have you ever sat in a hospital lounge chair for six hours? Not comfy. The person may have to wear short sleeves or an open button down shirt depending on where the port is for the IV that delivers the drugs. Having a small throw blanket or a nice shawl to wrap up in after getting set up can feel great.
5. Games. My brother and I played a lot of Connect Four when he was in the hospital. Neither of us really liked it as kids, but my aunt brought it one day and we were so glad for the entertainment. Choose a game that just two people can play. Games are also a great tool for patients to use to “entertain” their visitors. Sometimes people do not know what to talk about when they stop by and the room can get pretty awkward. We would bust out a game and focus on the fun instead of the illness.
6. Art projects. If your friend, colleague, or family member enjoys keeping their hands and minds busy (and are physically able to, of course) they might appreciate an adult coloring book, a paint-by-number kit, a little weaving loom, etc. Check out the craft kit aisle at Michael’s or A.C. Moore. If they would laugh in your face if you gave them a coloring book, maybe LEGOs or an Etch-A-Sketch is a better idea.
7. House work. My brother and his wife loved when someone paid for a house cleaning crew to come to their house, or hired a landscaper to clean the property every once and a while.
8. A small gift for the caretaker. I felt so loved during the time I helped to care for my brother. There was of course the special bond between he and I, which only grew stronger as he grew weaker. But there was also this appreciation from friends and family for the role I played. It was as if they were saying, “Thank you for helping this person I love.” I did not need to be recognized, but it did feel good when someone brought me a little something—gift cards to restaurants near my house, scented candles, bath products, jewelry, lots of coffee, a plant. These little pick-me-ups really kept me going.
So, there you have it, a few practical gift ideas you may not have thought of before.
The #1 thing NOT to give a cancer patient? Advice. There is a fine line between words of encouragement and those absurd statements that start with, “If I were you…” Guess what? You are you, and you are not the cancer patient. Well, maybe you are too, but even then, would you want someone telling you what to do? Give them an Etch-A-Sketch instead. Seriously.
If you are reading this and it is useful, I am sorry. I am sorry you know someone suffering. I am sorry the word cancer has entered into your vocabulary in an intimate and scary way. I wish the best for you and your loved one.