It's that time of year again, when we rely on advertising, the golden rule, impulse, or -- if we're really lucky -- lists of appropriately-priced gifts to guide our decisions about what to give for the holidays.
Unfortunately, advertising can lead to disappointment ("Those earrings looked way more sparkly in the SkyMall catalogue!"); the golden rule may not apply in matters of taste; impulse buys can end up in the wrong hands or mouths ("Does ample Aunt Polly really need those truffles I bought? Better eat them myself!") And lists? Who has time for lists?! It can be even more daunting to find a gift for someone with cancer, who may feel especially fragile. As a two-time survivor who has received some of the most appropriate, healing and helpful presents imaginable, as well as a few that were not, I thought I'd share some ideas with you, based on my experiences and those of hundreds of others I've surveyed.
Although buying for your Cancer Pal can involve more than flipping to the Shopping Network, some of the most precious gifts cost nothing more than a bit of heart, time, and presence of mind.
Best Gifts for People with Cancer
1. A funny movie or tickets to a musical or comedy club. The top statement that people in a survey of more than 600 survivors said they wanted others to know is, "I need to laugh -- or just forget about cancer for a while." Easier said than done, because sometimes it's impossible to escape the emotional and cerebral clutches of cancerland. But we'll appreciate the gesture.
2. "Get out of jail free" cards for when we snap at you, neglect to return your call, or forget to thank you. Cancer is traumatic and time-consuming, and we may not be our normally polite, sociable, cheerful selves. Letting us know you understand and forgiving us is indeed a great gift!
3. A gift certificate for doing five loads of our laundry. It should include pick up and delivery, sorting, using no-scent detergent if requested, and folding. Be sure to ask whether we like our socks rolled.
4. A comfy nightgown or PJs. When we have cancer, we may sleep more (or at least stay in bed more -- sometimes anxiety or pain keeps us up), and it's always fun to have something new to wear. Make sure the fabric is soft; I love all-cotton, which is important when you perspire.
5. A certificate for one-hour of listening, without advising, interrupting, or judging. Sometimes we just need to talk, so turn off your cell phone and look us in the eye. We may, however, want to hear about your problems, too, both because we love you and want to get outside of our own heads. So ask if we want to hear what's up with you. Just don't complain about your hangnail.
6. A gift certificate for a foot, neck, or body massage. Whether it is you or a professional who massages us, we will love the soothing comfort of hands kneading our tense muscles. And touch itself can be deeply healing. It can be difficult to find the time for a massage when you have cancer, so it's helpful if you offer to schedule it for us -- and while you're at it, get one for yourself and make a date of it.
7. A 12-box Fruit of the Month club. Although spendy, this is a truly exceptional gift. It's not only healthy, fresh, and delicious, but it also shows you believe your friend or loved one will be around a year from now. Don't give anything less than a year or, in our fragile state, we may get the wrong message.
Worst Gifts for People with Cancer
1. A cancer book. Often, we feel overwhelmed with advice and options, and yearn to maintain some control over the information that comes into our purview. So even if you know of a book that is seemingly benign, ask if we're interested in reading it. We may not want to hear about others with cancer, even warriors and victors such as Lance Armstrong, since we can't all be as strong as him.
2. Supplements or vitamins. We may want or need a particular supplement we're already sold on, and getting us reinforcements could be very helpful. But don't spend a bundle on sharks gonads we may toss; better to use the resources on one of the gifts above. Again, ask first.
3. A sad movie. It can be cathartic to cry, but most of us cry enough without shedding rivers of tears for someone else we don't even know and who doesn't really exist! Same goes with cancer movies.
4. A subscription to a news magazine or any current events publication. Though it may be wonderful to gift someone with something that proves you think they'll be around for another year, even seeing the front page of most newsmagazines can grind wheels of hope to a screeching stop. Keep it positive whenever you can.
5. A video of The Secret or anything that posits that positive thoughts can cure cancer. Although having a cheery attitude may help, and positive social support and hope can heal, hearing that our thoughts, if strong enough, can rid our bodies of something as vicious and virulent as cancer can make us feel way worse than inadequate when we can't manage to look on the bright side.
I'd love to hear best and worst gift ideas. Please post them here and share this with others.
A cancer survivor, Lori Hope has written and spoken about cancer support for almost a decade. Her best-selling cancer support book, Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know, was released this September in a new, expanded second edition that includes a foreword by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., a survey of more than 600 survivors, new sections on gender and cultural differences and childhood and adult cancers, and a "Quick Guide to Cancerquette." Hope's essays and articles have appeared in publications including Newsweek, and cancer-related and college English textbook anthologies. Her work has been featured on Oprah and The Today Show and in Time magazine and she has spoken before staff and leadership of the American Cancer Society, the Oncology Nursing Society, and dozens of other groups. To order her book and to read her blog, visit Lori on www.LoriHope.com and Red Room.