Written by Krystina Wales
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Lea Ann Biafora
When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, friends and family members are sometimes at a loss for how to help. In the beginning, there may be an outpouring of support that wanes as the long oncology journey continues.
Along the way, there are points, however small, where friends and family can make an impact. Small gestures add up. But the treatment process is a big opening filled with opportunities to lend support and encouragement.
Here are some ideas on putting together the perfect care package for someone seeking radiation or chemotherapy treatments.
Consider their travel time
According to Kristin, an oncology patient navigator at a hospital in rural Pennsylvania, some patients travel up to 35 miles one way just to receive treatment. Treatment lengths vary depending on the case, but radiation plans require patients to be in their Cancer Center or treatment facility five days a week for two to six weeks. That can get expensive. She recommends gas cards or bus tokens that offer assistance with transportation for cancer patients for those getting treatment in a large city. It might be a more practical gift, but certainly high on the list of needs.
Give them a welcome distraction
Once there, patients often receive treatment for hours at a time. Crossword puzzles, novels, and magazines are always helpful and appreciated ways to pass the time. You can also look online for some of the best books for someone with cancer. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, most patients are still allowed to bring some personal items, so even a game to be played on their phone or tablet might be a welcome distraction.
Layer them for warmth
The rooms where patients receive treatment are often large and cold. Blankets, hats, and socks made of soft, comfortable, non-itchy material are good sources of comfort and warmth. Long-sleeve tops, pants and long skirts are also a good option when looking for comfortable clothes for cancer patients.
Hydrate their skin
Treatments can also make skin dry, and—in the case of radiation—can cause burns. An unscented lip balm or hand lotion can be good options. Designed for sensitive skin but strong enough to soothe even strong burns caused by radiation, Aquaphor is recommended because it’s petroleum-based, fragrance-free, and over-the-counter. There are also companies that sell products specifically developed and marketed for oncology patients, such as Lindi Skin, which offers a range of creams, lotions, and ointments.
Keep the potential side effects of nausea in mind
Unscented products are an important distinction because of the potential side effect of nausea. Some patients can tolerate certain smells better than others, so ask before purchasing candles, room sprays, lip balms, or hand lotions in what could otherwise be considered calming scents. Nausea can be combated with gifts of peppermints, ginger candies, ginger ale, or crackers like Saltines or graham crackers, are all great examples of anti nausea foods for cancer patients.
Give them a gift (so) they can’t forget
A journal with a pen is another thoughtful gift. Even if the patient isn’t much of a writer, journals or other fun notebooks can be used to take notes during important doctor appointments.
Wrap it all in a useful package
Kristin also suggested packaging up care items in a nice tote bag or backpack for patients. Patients have a lot to bring to treatment and often end up having to lug paperwork and other items back home. Having a strong and sturdy bag to schlep it back and forth is helpful and thoughtful.
Words of empathy and solidarity are a powerful gift
The last and perhaps hardest part for some is what to write in a card for someone with cancer. Cancer is scary, stressful, and uncertain. It’s like having a child: Even though a lot of people have gone through it, each experience is so individualized, that it’s hard to know what to say, especially when you haven’t experienced it yourself.
According to Kristin, the most common feedback clinical staff hear from patients in terms of correspondence is they wish people wouldn’t be scared to talk about what’s really going on.
Cancer patients know they have cancer. They are living it. Embrace the hard things with them and lean into it. Have empathy. Be honest and real in your communications. It can be as simple as “You got this” or “I’m thinking about you,” or it can be more complex and personal. Being honest will make them feel less alone in this journey. Quotes are also a great source of comfort, and can take the burden off you to come up with the right language to express how you feel. Lean on the experts who have done it already.
Notes can be written in traditional cards, or get fancy and make the quote into a bookmark for the book you are gifting. Maybe write a note on the first page of the journal, or even get a tote that constantly reminds them to “stay strong” by printing the message on the front.
If you’re making a care package for a child
Many of these suggestions can be adapted for pediatric cases as well, including blankets, socks, and hats with their favorite superhero or cartoon character on them. Depending on the age, books and games can also be good to pass the time.
One parent of a child who was diagnosed with a brain tumor at five months old said supporters often gave toys as gifts for her son and his 4-year-old brother. While they were greatly appreciated, she ultimately had to move from her dream home to an apartment. The sheer volume of toys was overwhelming.
She suggested, especially for parents with very young children in treatment, gifts of food. Whether it be pre-made dinners for the whole family, easily portable and healthy lunches, or just good, non-perishable snacks, food is one less thing parents then need to consider in a world that is, rightfully, revolving around their child’s care.
No matter what you select or how you package it, people just love to know others care, especially during times of challenge and uncertainty. Any of these items together or individually will show someone is thinking about them. And, ultimately, empathy and friendship is the best gift.