The WORST Cancer Gifts That Should Have Never Been Given

No one wants to get the “worst gift for cancer patient” award. I get it, I do, Your friend or loved one has cancer and you want to help so bad. That thought can lead to very misguided gifts.

I’m sure your friend knows that your intentions are genuine, but some odd gifts can leave doubt about your judgement. Your heartfelt gesture may be perceived as insensitive (and have the exact opposite effect you hoped for).

Honestly, it’s hard to land on the perfect gift for someone who has cancer. Going through chemo and cancer treatments is an individual journey. Your best bet is to give practical gifts of help, little gestures of kindness. Don’t forget messages of love and support! Those gifts are where the greatest needs are.

With no further ado, here is the extensive list of sucky cancer gifts to avoid…

Table of Contents

Gifts for hair – that they don’t have

Let’s get this straight, not all cancer requires losing your hair. According to MD Anderson Center, most hair loss is caused via chemotherapy treatments, with radiation treatments sometimes causing hair loss.

In addition, the Dana-Farber Institute reports that new chemo drugs don’t cause hair loss because they are better able to target cancer cells.

But let’s say that your friend with cancer does lose their hair. Imagine how your friend feels when they unwrap a hair scrunchie – what a slap in the face! Gifts like shampoo, conditioner, and hair towel will have the same reaction.

Cancer patient who has lost hair, in hospital.
Cancer treatments that leave someone without hair is emotionally devastating.

Don’t you dare give a hat that has a hole for a ponytail to go through “for those days you don’t feel like doing your hair”! In addition, these ill-timed gifts are ridiculous when the person is about to shave their head.

Seriously, is this like Candid Camera and someone is filming? Dial up the sensitivity, folks!

Coming in at a strong Number 2 is giving your friend with cancer a beanie, wig, headscarf, or – and they haven’t lost their hair yet. They might never lose their hair. You might be upsetting them, triggering sadness, crying, and depression. Way to go!

Stop being a wig pusher

Next to inappropriate gifts for the hair, are probably insisting on wigs when they don’t even need a wig! Geesh!

When it comes time for a wig, it is a deeply personal decision. Even then, there are other options besides wigs: hat/cap options, tatooed head decoration, or rocking the bald look.

And don’t pull any surprises. Don’t think you are going to trick the cancer patient into a “spa day” only to whisk them off to a private wig consultation. Did the person tell you that they didn’t want a wig? Did they tell you 15 times that they didn’t want a wig? Then I think they don’t want a wig.

Just for good measure, let’s throw in some insult to injury. How about a Dolly Parton wig… or one from the very classic Raquel Welch wig collection? If your friend without hair is youthful, they won’t want any style near what these starlets tote.

Gifts of smelly stuff, what were you thinking?

People in treatment have messed up senses. If they’re not on chemo, certain medications can make them feel nauseous, and scents can be a real puke trigger.

Super strong smelly bath bombs (filled with itchy chemicals), heavily scented candles, a bonanza of scented lotions – are just going to get tossed into the trash can.

The most worthless gifts I got are bath bombs. I have no bathubs in my house. Plus, I find the odor offensive. Cancer or no cancer, they won’t get used.

Cancer patient

One cancer patient even mentioned that their favorite perfume was no longer their “favorite” anymore. Cancer alters smells. Keep that in mind before gifting something like that.

Bath bombs and fragrant candle, and spa towels.
Strong smells, such as candles, bath bombs, and lotions, can be offensive to cancer patients.

It’s practically common knowledge that chemotherapy and radiotherapy can result in skin sensitivities. Plus, hospitals are dry environments. The result are lots of gifts of lotion. Cancer patients have a good laugh over the mountain of skin products they receive.

This whole smelly topic reminds me of the “old lady perfume phenomena”. The old sniffer loses it’s power in the aging years, resulting in gifting stronger and stronger fragrance gifts. It is a real thing!

Even if you’re smart enough to give unscented products, your friend with cancer may end of donating them due to having too many.

Stop with the food!

Here are food topic mistakes that don’t help anyone:

Nausea. Ginger candy sounds darn right considerate for anyone feeling nausea due to chemo. Not exactly. Some chemo patients report that foods they ate during chemo may turn them off forever. That, and the fact that they received loads of ginger candy from well-meaning friends, may be a thumbs down.

Man sitting in a chair in hospital room.
Cancer treatments can create nausea, and body discomforts that make eating food uncomfortable.

Oral issues. It’s important to know that cancer alters tastebuds, as well as wreak havoc to skin. Cancer patients undergoing treatment can get a sore mouth and tongue. This not only makes it unpleasant to eat, it makes it unpleasant to brush teeth, use toothpaste, or use mouthwash. Oh, and lemon glycerin swabs dry out the tissues in the mouth. Wow, cancer sucks!

Enemy food. Tea reduces iron absorption in the body. OK, not good for cancer patients. Wait – what if the cancer patient doesn’t even like tea?!? Yeah, that would be a pretty clueless gift.

John Hopkins Medicine gives more advice on foods to avoid during cancer treatments.

Seriously, a puppy?

True story. This must happen a lot because a close acquaintenance of mine gave her college-aged daughter a puppy. WTF? Then I read about someone with breast cancer, and her sister giving her a puppy.

Let’s face it, there is no “worst gifts for cancer patients” article that is going to talk sense into someone stupid enough to give another person a puppy. They likely have a track record of incredibly stupid gifting.

Pomeranian emotional support dog.
I chose this Pomeranian emotional support dog picture, because I had one of them as a kid. Consider borrowing a friend’s emotional support dog before giving one as a gift – your friend with cancer will appreciate it!

A cancer patient needs to take care of themselves, not a puppy! The cancer patient’s energy levels will be in the negative digits… and you feel that a high-energy puppy that cries day and night and needs to be potty-trained, walked, and costs money in vet bills is the best gift ever?

I know where your heart is, you want to gift a happy, feel-good moment. This can be done with borrowing an emotional support dog. Yep, they’re out there, even free visits. Please do this instead, if you can’t stop thinking about it. For more info, read about therapy dogs over at WebMD.

Lastly, don’t gift anything that they have to take care of. Flower and plants that have to be watered become a burden. Cancer patients do report that they liked coming to their home and seeing a cheerful plant on the outside – that someone else was watering. Once plants start to wilt and die, it just becomes depressing.

A mountain of cozy cancer crap gifts

You’re probably thinking, what’s the problem with a soft and warm blanket? How about a dozen soft and warm blankets? Yeah, everyone has the same idea.

In addition, some types of chemo can cause treatement-induced menopause (Canadian Cancer Society). This means that the lucky lady could be non-stop excessively hot. Throw summer in, and it’s a real cooker.

Cozy gifts: pajamas, fuzzy slippers, soft blanket, eyemask.
Cozy gifts for cancer are fine – until it builds to a mountain.

If you know the person well, and they’re going through treatment-induced menopause, opt for a battery fan or fan mister. They’ll use it everyday and be thankful they have it while they have their next hot flash.

They only have one pair of feet, so how many fuzzy socks could they possible wear? Actually, what would be really funny if it days of the week underwear, but for socks. Nix that – the days of the week socks are pretty much for kids. Go with the days of the week sexy underwear, and then put a note on it, saying the “anti fuzzy sock gift”.

If they look at you funny, just point them back to GiftGivingSucks.com

Enough already with the pink stuff!

If someone was a Green Bay Packers fan, you would give them cool Green Bay Packers gear. If someone was a Harry Potter fan, then Potter-themed gift ideas are perfect. They have breast cancer? Let’s shower them with pink breast cancer awareness accessories… STOP, DON’T DO THAT!

Having cancer doesn’t define a new hobby or interest for them. Never assume that they are a “pink” person. It’s better to check first. When my co-worker had breast cancer, we were very careful about pushing pink on her. We did take a group photo where we all wore pink. I think that was taken well, because it was in solidarity with her (and not gifts of pink she was expected to wear or use).

Pink merchandise promoting breast cancer awareness month and "Pinktober".
Pink cancer merchandise as well as overly-inspirational cancer merch can be suffocating.

Persons with cancer don’t want the constant reminder they have cancer. To be clear, go easy or completely avoid these cancer-themed gifts:

  • anything with pink ribbons
  • breast cancer hair bows
  • cancer jewelry, no matter how nice it is!
  • cancer jewelry when they don’t even wear jewelery
  • Kicking Cancer Ass merch, or “Breast Cancer Bad Ass” – no Survivor, Warrior or Battle gear
  • Dammit dolls and snarky cancer coloring books (it’s like receiving multiple toasters gifts from your wedding, they will probably receive this in multiples – don’t think you’re the only one thinking of it)
  • cancer-themed basket full of useless stuff
  • inspirational cancer books and journals

Cancer survivors share that the commercialism of Cancer Awareness month, the cutsy names of “Pinktober”, and social media bombardment of cancer “challenges” leaves them feeling bitter. Equally annoying is when their world turns pink the instant their cancer diagnosis is made public.

Best advice? Channel these good intentions where they actually make a difference.

Morale-dropping clothing gifts

Be careful when giving a clothing gift for your friend with cancer. Your idea of a self-esteem boost may backfire on you.

Cute clothes, or attractive lingerie/bras could remind them of a changing body they have lost control over. Even more inconsiderate is a gift of a bra for someone that has had a double mastectomy. Certain types of clothes can prove impractical when medical ports needs have an entry.

Friends supporting someone with cancer.
Even close friends can screw up gifts to a friend with cancer.

Shopping outings aren’t a super-great idea, either. Even the most dedicated shopaholic will experience tiredness, resulting in a lack of interest. If you still insist on clothing, look for loose, comfortable clothing that helps when cancer treatments leaving them feeling in pain.

This is a case of “you work for them.” If your friend or family member with cancer tells you they want something, you do it. In addition, sometimes clothing advice comes much better from a professional, or someone who has lived through cancer. Offering ideas can be a way of helping, but only from their most trusted confidants.

The black hole of coloring books (and journals!)

So many coloring books! There’s a coloring book for everything these days. Cancer-themed ones range from inspirational to quite crude. Know your friend with cancer will get buried under the avalanche.

Never in my life have people seemingly wanted me to take up journaling as when I got cancer.

-Cancer survivor

And journals. Cancer doesn’t make someone want to take up journaling. Journals (with prompts) can be seen as prthe act of preparing for death. What a lovely signal to send! May I also add “beating cancer” books. It can all be too depressing, take it easy on these gifts!

Woman with shaved head writing in a journal
Beware of cancer “media” like coloring books, journals, and cancer morale books that are not welcome.

The gift of… NOTHING

There’s nothing that hurts more than lack of support through cancer. Especially getting snubbed from those closest to you.

Going through the cancer journey means having solid support. It’s almost a given that family, friends, or coworkers are there to cheer you on. When no flowers arrive, no care baskets, no get well cards, it hurts.

You insensitive asshole!

-John Candy, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”

via GIPHY

As one person put it, “People don’t realize the impact their lack of recognition has.” It leaves the cancer patient crying from the diagnosis, and the lack of support. That’s a pretty dark hole to be in.

So, in the power granted me through GGS, I put a curse on you. A curse for not buying flowers after surgery. No flowers after radiation treatment. A curse for making someone even have to ask for a gift (incredibly, it happens – wow, that’s sad).

Heavy is the head that wears the cancer crown.

-Cancer survivor

And while we’re at it, I’m putting a curse on a staff person who asked why we’re bothering supporting my coworker who was having a masectomy. Wow, I have no words. There are some really cold-hearted people out there. Karma’s a bitch, woman (yeah, this from another female!).

Cancer patient sharing her tears with husband.
Cancer it tough, even for the most emotionally strong person. Zero support, or gifts of support can be devastating.

Cancer sucks gifts – no, these gifts really do suck

I cannot even believe that I’m having to provide a “worst cancer gifts” list. People, this is really the baddest of the bad gifts. Given the example of worst human ever (see above coworker), I’m not surprised that it has to be spelled out:

  • used coloring books (or anthing used, for that matter)
  • sledge hammer to “smash cancer”
  • wooden spoon to beat out negative emotions (you’re just nasty if you include a poem)
  • breast cancer warrior basket (and they have lymphoma)
  • pink ribbons on the most unexpected merch, like rubber ducks
  • any merch telling them they are “cancer strong” or “brave”
  • a themed cancer basket of worthless stuff
  • tea (they’re not a tea drinker)
  • a self help book about emotions
  • a fundraiser that they didn’t ask for
  • asking them to be honored at an event, or any other focus of attention
  • port protector for seat belt (port is in their arm)
  • a wooden fish that holds/balances a bottle of wine, and other regifting surprises
  • a handmade stake (like for vampires) with the words F**k Cancer

Those last ones are real gifts, it just shows you that people need serious gifting help. Best advice is to not try so hard, and to get a second opinion before giving a cancer gift you think is awesome (for the love of God, please ask first!).

…and don’t give these cancer gifts, either

This post is getting pretty long (I am really impressed with people’s inability to gift). I rather enjoyed drilling into the subject of worst cancer gifts – but I’m not done yet!

“Get Well Soon” Cards

The phrase “get well soon” implies that it’s the flu and they will feel much better in a week. Cancer is a long journey. Even if they’re labeled “cancer free” it does not hold the promise cancer won’t come back.

Instead, write a meaningful letter of encouragement, ramble on about every day stuff, provide a distraction. Keep circling back, because the well wishes shouldn’t be a one and done.

Enough with the traditional gifts

I won’t spend a lot of time here, but “go-to” hospital gifts might be the wrong gifts. For health reasons, here are some gifts to avoid:

Hospital aide delivering flowers to a patient.
Traditional get well gifts such as flowers and balloons, may not be the best choice for patients undergoing cancer treatments.
  • Metallic balloons: A metallic balloon can interfere with electronic equipment, and a latex balloon can trigger an allergic reaction.
  • *Flowers. Plants and flowers harbor bacteria and fungal spores that place patients — especially transplant and cellular therapy  patients — at higher risk for infection to their weakened immune system. Additionally, flowers may trigger emotional distress when the plant wilts and dies, or even worse, remind them of a funeral.
  • Candy. There are many foods that a cancer patient has to avoid, or will suddenly no longer care for.

*I’ve mentioned flowers a few times throughout this article. There will be some expectations of flowers. Use your best judgement (although I’ve already discounted that). Let me steer you instead, to doing acts of kindness and small gestures that really help a sick person when they’re healing.

Distractions are great, within reason

Movie tickets, tickets to a sporting event or show, a gift for a makeover, or a night out for a nice dinner are all thoughtful cancer gift ideas. Many of these ideas require stamina that a person with cancer can’t sustain. Consider their physical limitations, such as shortness of breath, discomfort from surgery, etc.

One man with cancer appreciated the gift of movie tickets, but he had to leave half way through because he was exhausted. In addition, the person may not be ready to be out in social situations. Save these ideas for someone who is in remission or in between therapies.

Man, unhappy at gym, lookin in the mirror.
Cancer patients going through treatment may avoid public events and social interactions.

As one person put it, “cancer is a constant, unexpected battle.” Give gifts that the person can do on their own time, as they feel up to it, or when they’re in remission. For example, gifts that have to be used by a certain date can end up just stressing them out.

Bucket gift lists: just because someone has cancer, it doesn’t mean they’re dying. In addition, there are a lot of things that someone doesn’t feel up to when going through cancer. The question is, is it to make you feel better, or them?

Stay away from these activities

A visit to a nail salon may be on the banned list of activities from the doctor. The same with avoiding massages while someone has cancer.

Some spa treatments need to be avoided, because of the risk of getting lymphedema. Once someone develops lymphodema there is no cure and it can be extremely painful. However, more spas are offering cancer-friendly services, so don’t miss out on pampering a friend, but do so with the right info going in.

Lastly, avoid sad movies, books, etc. Your job is to keep their spirits up. Laughter is the best medicine, after all!

Religous gifts? Umm….

Religous gifts? Only if you really know the person, and definitely not if they are of a different religion. Pray from afar and pray often for them. I am not anti-Christian/Islam/etc. gifts, I am anti-choke-a-horse with mountains of religious gifts.

Shut your pie hole – no medical cancer advice!

Let the doctor offer the cancer medical advice. This goes for recommending books and articles. (unless they specifically ask for it). Even a person who has gone through cancer, will have a different experience from theirs.

Cancer is hard. Treatment is hard, Figuring out the medical system is hard. Having someone help navigate as a team is amazing, giving unsolicited advice is not. Don’t give the gift of stressing them out!

The gift wrap up

Remember that sometimes gifts that cost nothing at all are the most precious to a patient. Take a few moments to think twice about your cancer gift, it can really make a difference!

Renee Cavvy
Renee Cavvy

Renee pulls no punches when it comes to challenging the social norms of gift giving. Her mission: putting an end to meaningless gifts and cutting through the fluff. This midwest mom offers novel and creative ideas to do gift giving better!