Last week, a colleague approached me to talk about her sister-in-law, who is about to have a lumpectomy and radiation. I assumed she wanted to talk about cancer. I was more than happy to lend my insights, but what I realized was that what she was asking me was: what can I get for a woman who has cancer? I asked her to clarify, and what she was actually asking me was: what can I buy for her so she can feel better about this whole ugly situation? And maybe she was also saying was: what can I buy for her, so I can feel better about this whole ugly situation? Either way, I’m all for gift giving; everyone benefits.
I have to admit, one of the unexpected by-products of having cancer was that I received a number of thoughtful and inspired gifts. When I say gifts, what I mean is I received many tangible items, from writing journals to pillow cases, to already read and loved books, to comfortable pajamas and organic skincare products. I also received many intangible things, like support and love, guidance and friendship. I was more than happy to receive these things because they did make me feel better, and now when I meet a woman who has been diagnosed, I send her a gift. I have given headscarves and writing journals, big hoop earrings and organic skincare products. I have also given phone calls and hugs.
So in thinking about my gift giving, I have devised a list of both tangible and intangible gifts that one can give and ask for this season and beyond.
- Take their kids for a few hours for a week. Feed and walk their dog for a few days. Take some of their responsibilities away, so they can have time to mourn their loss. Either way, giving time can be rewarding.
- Support: A shoulder to cry on, open ears, and a listening heart. The LBBC Breast Cancer Helpline number: 1.888.753.LBBC (5222). I wanted to feel strong and empowered even though I was in midst of the most terrifying journey of my life. Respect where they are. Let them cry if they need to cry. Let them not cry, if that’s what they need.
- Organic skincare products. Anything with no parabens or phylates. Even when I was in chemo, I liked to feel beautiful. Here’s a great website to check to see what ingredients are in the products.
- Know your audience. Inspirational books. Funny books. Graphic novels. Some great books I received: Thich Nhat Han’s You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment; Cancer Vixen by Marissa Acocella Marchetto; The Adventures of Cancer Bitch by S.L. Wisenberg.
- Even if she doesn’t write or like to write, journals are a great gift because they remind you that there are still pages to be filled. Go for the ones that she can carry around with her and write in whenever. In mine, I pasted all of my chemo parking stubs just as a reminder.
- Good pens make a big difference. If your pen writes well, has the right thickness of line, and is in a favorite color, it basically writes itself. My favorite is Pilot Precise V7 Needle Rollerball Pen, Fine Point, Green.
- Massage: The Society for Oncology Massage has a therapist near her. Check it out in her area.
- More Time. Take her out just for lunch or breakfast. Take her for an organic pedicure or to get her eyebrows dyed. Pay for fake eyelashes for both of you!
- During chemo, music saved me. Music can come in many different genres. Know your audience. For me, the same two Gillian Welch albums, Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings, got me through the birth of my second child and chemo! Maybe even some Beats headphones to go with it.
- Food: Women are doers and expect the same “can do” attitude from others. If making food for a friend in need, shop organic and ask one question: Any dietary restrictions? After that, you do the work. Don’t wait for her to come back and tell you when you can drop it off or what she likes. Make it. Drop it off.
- Rides: Lots of rides. Rides to chemo. Rides to radiation. Rides to church. Rides to the mall. Rides to doctor appointments. My grandfather taught me this. He used to give rides to home-bound elderly so they could get to doctor’s appointments or the voting booth.
Knowing that many of you already give fabulous gifts and this is just a partial list, maybe send this to friends or loved ones who may need some gentle reminders about what to get for the woman in their life who has cancer.
Jenny Burkholder is the mother of two girls, a teacher at Abington Friends School, and a published poet.