Gift Ideas for Cancer Patients: What to Avoid

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Hands holding a small present wrapped with a red bow

Holiday shopping guide for a friend or loved one with cancer

Cancer patients have a wide variety of emotional and physical needs. You’ll want to find products that combat the side effects of cancer treatment and make recovery from surgery a little easier or simply find items that bring comfort and peace. Certain things are prohibited during treatment and others should be avoided because they may trigger negative reactions.

Here are some of the most common things you'll want to avoid this holiday season along with some alternative gift options that are sure to make any patient feel loved.

  • Don’t buy flowers. Plants and flowers harbor fungal spores that place patients — especially transplant and cellular therapy  patients — at higher risk for infection. Additionally, flowers may trigger emotional distress when the plant wilts and dies.
    Do buy handmade paper flowers, silk flowers, hand-blown glass flowers or fresh fruit bouquets, but ask permission from their physicians before sending a fresh fruit bouquet to a patient who had a transplant or who had cellular therapy.
  • Don’t buy perfumes or scented toiletries. Radiation and chemotherapy alter sense of smell. Smells that are usually pleasant can become unbearable, too strong, or cause nausea.  Do not buy lemon glycerin swabs as they dry out the tissues in the mouth.
    Do buy unscented lotions and lip balms. Dry skin and lips are a side effect of chemotherapy so lotions and chapsticks are a great choice as long as they are unscented.
  • Don’t buy sweets or candy. Most patients have dietary restrictions or follow nutrition guidelines that limit sugar. Additionally, chemo or radiation to the head can alter tastebuds and causes mouth sores that make eating certain foods more difficult. 
  • Do buy a gift certificate to their favorite grocery store. That way they can buy healthy, nutritious foods at their leisure.
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  • Don’t buy sad movies or books. The last thing a patient wants is to feel sad and depressed.
    Do buy a good, light-hearted novel, a funny movie, a new CD, a magazine subscription, or an audio book subscription. It will offer your friend or loved one a brief mental and emotional escape from their diagnosis and treatment.
  • Don’t buy balloons. Latex or rubber balloons could trigger allergic reactions. Additionally, metallic or mylar balloons are not permitted in ICU due to potential interference with electronic medical equipment.
    Do buy vinyl window or wall clings, artwork or a decorative picture frame filled with a sentimental photo.
  • Don’t buy get well cards. This may not be true for every cancer patient, but the phrase "get well soon"  can sometimes reminds patients of the months or years of treatments and surgeries they have ahead of them.
    Do buy a ‘thinking of you’ or a blank card with a personalized, hand-written note or a hand-made gift. Sometimes gifts that cost nothing at all are the most precious to a patient.