Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Best Gifts to Give Cancer Patients

Q:  Is there anything worse than the hospital bed?
A:  Yes, the hospital pillow.  Which is only trumped by the #1 universal answer of all times:  hospital food.  Here's what I know with absolute certainty.   If every country on the planet was on the brink of war, I could walk into the United Nations Building, stroll up to the podium and I could command immediate universal agreement with the following phrase:  "Is there anything worse than hospital food?".  There would not be one ounce of dissent in the room.  Everyone would agree.  There would be complete harmony in the room for 1 golden minute,  and then they could all get back to chatting about the need for world peace.  BUT I DIGRESS.

If you have asked any patient who has been in the hospital,  the only thing worse than hospital food, is those 3 dreaded letters....NPO, which means in medical speak "nothing by mouth".  No food, no water, and you have to beg and plead your nurse just to give you an ice chip stuck to a spongestick to suck on.  But this is a discussion for another day.

Bottom line:  it sucks to be a patient in the hospital....and the longer you are in the hospital, the harder it is.

No one ever knows what to bring as a gift to cancer patients in the hospital.  Flowers and potted plants are out.  The reason? They can contain bacteria and a lot of cancer patients have compromised immune systems and low white blood cell counts.  This makes them more susceptible to getting an infection (more on this another day).  Just know that no plants or flowers are allowed on most inpatient cancer units.

They may not have any appetite or they may have mouth sores which makes it painful to eat.  So, yes it is sometimes hard to know what to bring them for a gift.

So here are a few suggestions to bring to your loved one with cancer whether they are in or out of the hospital. Perhaps make a basket up and put them all in it!!  Keep in mind that space is REALLY limited in the patient's room, so try not to bring in things that take up a lot of space.

The Royal Velvet Pillow (or any comfortable pillow).  Anything beats the hospital pillow.

Update 12/27/13:  Some hospitals have policies in place now in regards to preventing the transmission of MRSA-methicillin resistant staph aureus (a type of community and hospital acquired infection) where they won't allow pillows or blankets brought in from home. 

My advice is to:   1) check with nursing staff for the hospital policy on this, and/or 2) bring in the new pillow in it's original packaging so the hospital staff knows it is new and safe for patient and hospital both.  I wouldn't go top of the line cost on the pillow, as you may have to jettison the pillow when the patient goes home.  You don't want to bring any other type of hospital "bugs" home with the patient.  Also, wash anything you bring home from the hospital well.

Elizabeth Grady Sensitivity Protection Cream

Aquaphor Ointment (can be used to slather on feet mixed with lotion, as a lip balm, for chapped the best!!).  Can be pricey, but they also have cheaper generic versions that are pretty good too.   Here's Walgreen's brand.

Heart Shaped Stickey Post-it Notes.  You can't put tape all over the walls of the hospital or the nurses will get pissed (it takes the paint off the walls).  I use these whenever one of my patients is admitted.  Just hang them up or cover the wall in them.  Friends, family and staff can write encouraging messages on them.  For $2 this is a great way to brighten their day!

Print out copies of pictures of family, friends and pets on regular paper to hang in the patient's room.
Use these post it flags instead of tape to put them on wall.  These can be easily removed when the patient goes home.  Make sure you get the fat kind as the thin ones don't hold.

  If the patient is at home and not in the hospital, give actual prints of photos in frames or books.

Offer to give the cancer patient a mini-pedicure (no real exfoliation or pumice stone if they are in the hospital).  Even just applying  a nice soft cream to their feet and perhaps a little polish (one that doesn't have a strong smell) might give them a little boost and it will feel great.  2 good creams:

Elizabeth Grady Feet First Cream


Burt's Bees Coconut Foot Cream 

Battery Operated Tea Lights.  Placed inside a little luminary or any small votive candle holder (that you would normally use for a real votive candle), can make the hospital room more "homey".  Acts as a nice little nightlight.  Maybe just enough light so the nurse doesn't need to turn on one of the harsher lights, which usually awakens the patient.  This would be more for the patient who has a lengthy (stem cell transplant) stay planned.


Hard candies (Lemonheads are a fave) or Starbursts (sometimes helps with the metal taste patients get from chemo).  Lemon hard candies are the ones of choice in our chemo clinic to help with the taste and to keep the mouth moist.

Lemonheads are AWESOME for dry mouth!

Biotene mouthwash or toothpaste products. Cancer patients have delicate gums and linings of the mouth.  Some of them get mouth sores.  Most mouthwashes have alcohol in them which is drying to the mouth (what you don't want).  Some mouthwashes can sting or hurt the mouth.  Biotene is the brand that is most suggested to cancer patients.  Most Biotene mouthwashes do not contain alcohol.

Soft and Comfy Chenille Slipper Socks.  If patient is in the hospital or they have ceramic tile or hardwood floors at home, make sure you get the kind with the treads on the bottom so they don't slip.  Hospitals usually have the terry cloth kind, but chenille is softer.  

Something to listen to music on.  Music (with headphones so it doesn't disturb other patients) are great to help the cancer patient relax.  Some use them when they come in for their weekly chemo.  They sit in the chemo chairs and put their music on and it takes them away to someplace better.  Inpatient:  music can help drown out the sounds of the nurses' station, the beeping of the IV pump.  Whether it be CD or iPod Shuffle with their favorite songs loaded on it, it makes a great gift.  If in the hospital, be mindful that things get ripped off or lost, so don't bring in the top of the line or most expensive version.

Something to communicate with to the outside world:  iPad, Kindle Fire, smart phone...anything that can let them get email, games, something to read.  Be mindful that hospitals have firewalls that may keep the patient from using their laptops or iPads, so always check with the patient or nurses' station first to see if the patient can use one.  See info above about theft/loss in hospital. 

Magazines and a paperback (hardcovers are too bulky and take up too much space if the patient is in the hospital).   The daily newspaper.  Something to drink.  Soft scarves for the head (not usually silk as it tends to slip on a bald head), some type of soft cotton fabric that will absorb perspiration and stay put.  A soft hat.  A soft throw. 


A big thanks to Mill Shires and his beautiful sister for this great idea below!!  It's a fleece shawl with pockets.  Something brightly colored, soft, warm and easy to pack in a tote bag for the chemo clinic or hospital.  It has no sleeves so IV bags and tubing are not an issue.  In the $20 range and it looks like it would be easy for talented seamstresses to make!

And the number one gift for cancer patients?????  A "voucher" or "coupon" offering your services.  No not THOSE services.  "This coupon good for one ride to the chemo clinic on the date of your choice".  "This coupon good for one grocery shopping trip" (either to drive the patient or to do the shopping yourself if they need it).  "This coupon good for one day where I will do all of your laundry, or clean your house, or mow your lawn".  The house cleaning is huge.  Helps the family too. 

If the patient is at home, bring a meal to be frozen with instructions on how to cook it.  One patient told me that all of her friends gave the family $500 in gift certificates for take-out from all of the local eating establishments.  She had teenaged sons who were picky eaters, so this way the whole family got fed, they got the chance to pick their favorite foods, and it still saved the cancer patient and her family members from having to cook. She never got over how thoughtful her friends were.  This was her favorite gift. 

Most of all, cancer patients need your love, patience and understanding.  So keep it coming!! 

Oh yes, and the food.  Individually wrapped non perishable treats that can be stored in their bedside table or nightstand.  More on food in another post..

Just a few suggestions.  Hope this helps! 

If you are a cancer survivor, please let me know what YOUR favorite gifts to receive were and I will add them here. 


  1. Thank you SO MUCH for this post! My sister is fighting cancer and we were trying to find appropriate gifts. This is a great help!

  2. Glad this helped! If you search this blog there are two more posts for good gifts to give cancer patients that I added later. Wishing the best for your sister.

  3. Hi! Thanks for the section on gifts. Very helpful. Would you know where I can find the following? My sister asked for help finding an item for when she is cold... "I could really use a throw over the shoulders fleece type sweater, but not with arms and not yarn. I can't get the arms through all my IVs and the Yarn types get caught in everything" I have looked, but can't find anything like this here. Maybe you have seen it or something like this?

  4. Mill,

    Thanks so much for reading my blog!! Really appreciate your comments and glad the gifts post was helpful!

    Here are a few suggestions:

    The first one is my favorite because it looks comfortable and fashionable. It is a cute, fleece and looks like a regular jacket/wrap but it doesn't have sleeves. This would work great with IV's etc and it also has pockets so it doesn't scream "blanket" or bed jacket. The pretty colors will help brighten up a dreary chemo clinic day. Also it looks like it folds up into a small bundle that you could just throw in your tote bag. All of these below are sold for about $20.

    Mill, if you get one for your sister and she likes it, please let me know and I will add this to my "best gifts for cancer patients" posting and give you and your sister credit
    for the idea!!!!

    Hope this helps!!!


  5. fantastic ideas - thanks. God bless.

  6. Friend of mine has stage 4 cancer and doctors dont know if chemo will help. Besides prayer, what can I get her?

  7. Dear Anonymous, Sorry not to respond earlier, just seeing your post now.

    Prayer is always #1. Sharing your love and friendship with her. Spending time with your friend. Offer to help with errands, housecleaning, grocery shopping, offer to do laundry. Offer a ride to the doctor's office. Something as simple as a ride in the car to get her out of the house. Bring in meals or takeout gift cards. If your friend doesn't have much energy, offer to be the "point person" to let her other family and friends know the latest updates. It zaps your energy to have to always be telling everyone how you are doing.

    Don't be afraid to ask your friend what you can do for her. Remind her that it will make you feel better.

    But really, just be thoughtful and spend time with her. You will never regret it.

    Also remember, not every stage 4 diagnosis is hopeless.

    Good luck to you and your friend.

  8. Great gift ideas. I didn't think about chenille as a material for socks. It is extremely soft. I also think the shawl with the pockets is very functional and cute!

  9. Thank you for all of these helpful suggestions. I was at a loss to what to get my mom who is sleeping 23 hours a day. She doesn't want to feel like a patient at Christmas. These are great!

  10. Anonymous, Hope they help! Thanks for your feedback and all the best wishes for you and your mom.

  11. Lovely suggestions. In the initial days of her hospital stay I surprised a friend with a package including a lovely lightweight robe, eucerin cream, lemon candies, magazines, mints, chenille socks, and organic lip balm - not only did she love the gift, everything in it ended up becoming everyday go-to's during her stay (except for the magazine but hey a little fun is necessary!)

  12. Anonymous, You are a great friend! Very thoughtful and perfect!! Thanks for your comments!!

  13. My mother also said that plastic forks and spoons helped her get rid of the metal taste, so we got her a nice fancy hard plastic set.... She was reallllllly pleased!

    1. That is a great and useful gift!!! You are a thoughtful daughter!!! Yes, plastic utensils are great for that metal taste. Here's a post I wrote about it:

      Thanks for reminder. Great gift!!! Thanks for reading my blog!!

  14. Do you have any recommendations for teens? I am making a basket for a 14 year old cancer patient.

    1. I don't have kids and find teenagers generally scary!!
      : ) There! That's my disclaimer. Let's see, my niece and nephews favorite gifts were always gift cards. How about some i tunes gift cards that they can use to order MP3 songs and movies or to pay for more apps for their phones. If the cancer patient is in the hospital, many times there is a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts right inside the hospital walls. You could give a gift card and they could ask their nurse or nurse's aide to run down and get them a cup of coffee or a latte. Amazon or Netflix gift cards to order kindle books or magazines with. Nail polish if female or their favorite lotion. Snacks. Also, give them website info for Camp Mak a Dream or Newman's Hole in the Wall camps. These are great summer camps for kids/teens with cancer. Look for their special "teen camps". This will give them something to think about and look forward to. Maybe google what "teen" support groups or services are available in their area and put some of this info in their basket too.
      Do they have a pet at home that they are missing? Bring a photo, or video clip of what their pet is up to at home. How about making funny phrases or signs and taking pictures of the signs as "thoughts" of their pets and place it next to the child's pet? Make a little video or movie. Thanks for reading my blog!

  15. My wife of 48 years has pancreatic cancer. She does not need cooked foods brought to her,( especially left hanging on the garage door in 90 plus temps). How stupid can people get? Also to her mother she is not doing this to get attention, it is a life threating illness. You will miss her if she does not win this battle . It wouldn't hurt to tell her you love her and act like it.

    1. I am so sorry to hear about your wife's cancer. Sometimes folks don't know what to bring and even though their intentions may be good, the food may not be the best option, especially left outside in the heat. I absolutely agree with what you said "you will miss her if she does not win this battle". So true. And the best gift of all is to tell someone you love them and really mean it. Sending good thoughts out over the airwaves for you and your beautiful wife. Thank you for reading my blog.

  16. A close friend of the family was just diagnosed with cancer - aside from help we were unsure what to get. This list was great, thanks so much!

  17. I work for a pretty big company who donates quite often and this time to a cancer hospital. I was trying to see what they should give to the patients (instead of just $). This was extremely helpful. I thought pillows for sure, and maybe really nice water bottles, (spent a lot of time with my mom who suffered from lung cancer) but loved the socks and lotions idea also. Thanks for this!

    1. Wow. I'm so glad it helped. Sorry for the delay in thanking you, but I had to take a blog hiatus. Many thanks to you and your company for your generous spirit!!

  18. Sandy - your blog is fantastic! I have bookmarked it and think that you have the most comprehensive resource list I've seen.I worked in Oncology/Pharma for 17 years until a recent downsizing. Considering it a blessing in disguise, I've started a small Etsy business of patient care gifts. The shop is on and is named "Gracious Favour". Here is the link to one of the totes.
    I hope that you don't mind me publishing the link for those who don't have time to put one together. I just know that so many times, people want to help, and patients don't know on the outset what they will need.
    Thanks for such a wonderful blog -

  19. I just want to share an alternative gift idea that has been very well received and appreciated. It is called a "Big Hug", and is a 36" long stuffed character, available in 20+ characters. They are given to express love, caring and support to those who are going through a tough time. We have heartfelt testimonials and comments from recipients and customers that keep us going. Big Hugs were the brainchild of my late wife Patty who we lost to Ovarian cancer 20 years ago. Our website is

    1. I just checked out your website. Those are so cute!! I have a special place in my heart for those with ovarian cancer and their families. Thanks for your good work on behalf of your wife's memory. You honor her in the best of ways.

  20. My daughter has cancer and the best gifts aren't things. A friend set us up at so people sign up online and get instructions - disposable containers (I cannot keep track of/wash/return anything), leave meals in the cooler before 5, simple comfort food preferred. My cousin arranged for weekly housekeeping and yard work. So many people have donated to keep that going - super helpful.

    One of THE best ways to support us, is to look out for our other children: rides to school/dance/church, checking in with them, taking them Christmas shopping/for a drink/movies/camping trips. Dear friends even bought them new bikes because they'd outgrown theirs. Ours is a 2.5 year treatment protocol, so this is a huge chunk of their childhood and we are stretched beyond our limits.

    1. Great ideas all!! Thank you for sharing them!!

  21. Several years ago, I had a friend who had four young children when she lost her battle with cancer. Her husband's co-workers (KC Aviation) each donated a few of their own vacation days to her husband. When she passed away, her husband received the gift of 52 weeks of paid vacation to care for their young children. That was one of the most touching and meaningful gifts they received.

    1. I am getting all teary reading about this amazing and wonderful gift. We did this for a fellow nurse once and it was absolutely the best thing. But never have I heard of a YEAR's worth of time. AMAZING. LOVING. TRULY KIND. WOW. KC Aviation...big kudos to you and your employees. This great gift made my day and I thank you for sharing it with other readers!!!!


  22. OMG....WE'RE FAMOUS!! We have been quoted in the article/blog below!! Thank you!!! on

  23. Update 10/3/2015- I wrote this blog post 3 years ago and I am so psyched to see the number of articles written about this topic on the internet now. AWESOME.

    I've added a few good links with some great suggestions for more useful gifts for cancer patients. Hope they help!!

    WOW..and this great list on Pinterest. Be mindful that most of these are for sale, but there are some really great ideas on here!!!