I found a lump in my breast the month after my 24th birthday. As I was about to go in for my lumpectomy/biopsy that I pushed so hard for, I was once again assured that I'd feel "better" once it was gone and that they were sure it was benign since I was young, healthy, very low risk and had minimal family history... Turns out I had Stage 2 Breast Cancer (invasive ductal adenocarcinoma) - with invasion of the lymph nodes, diagnosed 10/2/2017. Terrified, but determined to fight as hard as possible, I underwent an eight-hour bi-lateral mastectomy with immediate reconstructive surgery 2 months later, six months of Chemotherapy including Cytoxan, Adriamycin and Taxol, 33 rounds of Radiation, and am taking Tamoxifen daily & having Lupron injections monthly for 5-10 years to prevent recurrence. I will be 1-year cancer free in September.
I believe this obstacle was placed in my path to show others that it can be done.
Someone You Love Has Cancer – How Can You Help?
I have immense admiration and respect for the caregivers of cancer patients. It truly takes strength and character to take care of someone that is so vulnerable, weak and scared – all while you are confused and scared yourself. If you find yourself in a position where you must be a caregiver to a cancer patient, please first realize how brave, kind and wonderful you are as a person. Second, please know that the gift you are giving to this person you love, will likely be greater than any other gift they will ever receive throughout their life. Cherish that and honor it.
But, what should you do? What shouldn’t you do? Where should you start? There is no “right way” to battle cancer – but if you try to lead with love and kindness, you’re already making a huge difference in someone’s life at the time when they are likely to need it most. Please read on for 10 gift ideas that I personally recommend as a cancer survivor – things that truly helped me throughout my own battle with Stage 2 Breast Cancer at age 24.
1. Inspiring Tees:
During my cancer treatment, my family had t-shirts made that said, “Montana Strong” and all wore them to surprise me one day. It was one of the greatest gifts I received – just knowing that so many people were rooting for me and cheering me on kept me going on my hardest days. Another favorite T-Shirt is “Me: 1, Cancer: 0,” which I found on Amazon.com (for both men and women).
2. Care + Wear Port-Access Blouse:
If your loved one is receiving chemotherapy or any medications through a port (or port-a-cath) – a device generally placed underneath one’s chest to receive treatment and other fluids – give them this wonderful top from Care+Wear. These were my personal favorite because they are the best for port-accessibility while still being stylish. This would be a truly thoughtful gift that they will appreciate, especially because chemotherapy is stressful enough without having to worry about what to wear!
3. Five-Minute Journal:
During treatment, it is incredibly hard to stay positive. Many days, you look into the mirror and nothing is familiar – your hair is gone, your eyebrows, your eyelashes, your weight may change, you have new scars, and you feel weaker than ever before. Some days, you cannot even get out of bed or walk into another room. One way I helped myself stay positive was by using the Five-Minute Journal, which guides your mind to focus on the things in your life that bring you gratitude. It only takes five minutes daily and I found it to be extremely helpful for me. Some days, I was grateful for big things and other days, I may have been grateful to be able to eat a meal. It helped me appreciate life, no matter what my circumstances were that day.
The last thing I felt like doing during treatment was cooking. Partially, because of the lack of energy and because the smells of cooking often induced serious nausea. An incredible gift you can give to a cancer patient is something as simple as food – either by bringing them a meal or snacks, signing them up for a meal delivery service, or giving them a gift card to buy groceries with. The medical bills and prescription costs add up very quickly and helping with food takes a lot of stress off of a patient’s plate – mentally, physically and financially.
5. Hair Accessories:
Going through chemotherapy often causes hair loss. I personally lost all of the hair on my head and body for the entirety of my treatments. I tried to help myself cope with the loss by accessorizing as much as I could and having fun with it to the best of my abilities. I bought scarves in colorful and vibrant prints and learned how to tie them on my head in different ways. I bought fun hats and headbands to wear as my hair started growing back. I bought a wig, which I wore to a few formal occasions to feel more confident. Any hair accessory would be a gift that could be used by someone undergoing treatment and beyond. My advice for dealing with hair loss is simple: Whatever you need to do to feel better – do it. If you feel empowered and strong wearing a wig – do it. If you feel confident wearing a hat or head scarf – do it. If you want to rock the bald head – do it. I did all of these as I navigated through my cancer journey and while there is no “right way” to deal with this loss, trying to find joy and making the best of it can help.
Cancer is NOT FUN. There is very little about cancer that is enjoyable. Cancer patients miss their “normal” lives – they miss being able to just get up and go somewhere. During treatment, my white blood cell counts (the cells that help one’s body fight off infection and disease) would drop so low after chemotherapy that I couldn’t really go into public because of the risk of getting sick. Although this is very common, it can make you feel lonely and even more different than everyone else. When I was feeling up to it, doing fun things was life-changing for me and drastically helped my mental health. Even when I did not feel up to it at that time, knowing that activity was planned in the future gave me something to look forward to and focus on during the tough days. You do not need to plan anything extravagant – bring over snacks and have a movie night in, go to the beach and listen to the ocean, go for a short walk, make a craft together and remember, when in doubt… FOOD 😊
7. Radiation Burn Cream:
If someone’s treatment plan includes radiation, there is a likelihood that their skin will experience burns which can be painful. I used a brand called “Skin Soother,” which I purchased through their Instagram. It is made with all natural ingredients and was gentle enough to not hurt my skin but also kept it moisturized and helped prevent peeling. Having this on hand if and when it is needed would be a very thoughtful gift. I also used this on my bilateral mastectomy scars, which helped fade them in color.
8. Comfort Accessories:
Pillows or blankets, comfortable socks, and loungewear are all great gift options for a cancer patient. Being comfortable while at treatment and at home can be very difficult while you’re sore and weak, especially if you are going through surgeries too. Having pillows of varying shapes and sizes can allow someone to move things around – for example, when I couldn’t lay on my chest after surgery, having a bunch of pillows propped up around me was the only way I could get a full night’s sleep.
9. Take Care of Yourself:
Showing a cancer patient that you learned something from watching their journey is powerful. When I hear women say that they now do monthly breast exams or went in for a mammogram because they saw or heard about my story, I am filled with gratitude and pride. The only reason I share my story is to bring awareness and show others that this battle can be won.
10. Time and Love:
The greatest gift you can offer is simply YOU. Reaching out to help in any way be it offering to mow the lawn, shopping for groceries, running errands, taking the dog for a walk, doing the dishes, driving them to their appointments, picking up a prescription, or just calling to tell them you’re thinking of them helps more than you know. Love is the most powerful force on this Earth (if you ask me) so give them your love and make sure they know that they are not in this alone.