The holiday season always reminds us how hard it is to shop for certain people. Whether you’re roaming around Target or scanning page after page on Amazon, the same questions cross your mind. “Oh god, what was that awful band Uncle Bill loves?” Or “Your sister’s favorite color is purple, right?” What’s even harder than shopping for the not so close friend or family member is finding the perfect gift for someone suffering from a major illness. You want to help any way you can. You want to make the person feel better, hoping your gift will somehow tell the cancer to go away. As an 11-year survivor of a difficult cancer with no cure, called mesothelioma, I’d like to share my most memorable gifts and gestures I received during my battle with cancer. Hopefully, my personal stories and suggestions provide guidance to anyone struggling to find that perfect gift!

1. Gear the gift towards the individual, not the illness.

Try to distract the person of their illness, even if it’s for a brief time. Maybe you grew up together and have a bunch of pictures from your childhood. Make up a scrapbook filled with silly pictures, fond memories, and a few stories of your favorite times together! It’ll be sure to put a smile on the person’s face and get their mind off their illness.

Gift cards were also a huge help. I had friends who gave grocery store gift cards and offered to take me shopping–anything to lighten the load was extremely impactful. The people I used to work with all pitched in and sent me a gift card to Nordstrom and said, “We know you feel terrible. Go shopping, It’ll make you feel better.” I did just that and guess what, I did feel better! It made me feel normal just knowing that they thought of me, and it wasn’t cancer-related. To this day I still keep in touch with an old client who paid my car payment for two months. Not having to worry about where the money came from made life that much easier during a really stressful time, not just for me but my husband as well.

Gifting time to friends undergoing cancer treatment to do their holiday shopping, run errands, wrap their gifts, decorate their home (e.g., Christmas tree, lights) is very much appreciated, says Sandra L. San Miguel, MS, program director of the Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities at the National Cancer Institute.

2. Avoid food-like gift baskets.

To be honest, I didn’t use anything out of those giant snack-filled gift baskets.It’s a nice gesture, and extremely sweet, but I wasn’t able to eat any of the food because I was so sick. The cookies looked great, but the smell made me sick to my stomach. Caffeine wasn’t allowed, so some of the tea was off-limits. I felt bad not being able to use much from these expensive baskets filled with goodies, but my body couldn’t handle them physically. On the bright side, my husband enjoyed some of the items!

With that said, gift baskets can still be a great idea; however, only if they contain meaningful gifts, such as journals, coloring pencils/pens, hand sanitizer, candies (to get rid of the awful chemo taste), puzzle books, coloring books, books with motivational sayings, and favorite magazines, says San Miguel. “These baskets are great as later on they can be used to keep by them with their medicines, TV remote control, books, tissues, snacks, agenda with med appointments, etc.”

3. Donate to a special cause in the person’s name.

A former client of mine donated to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation in my name, and that to me meant more than anything. Getting a letter from MARF saying that a donation was made in my name was truly special, and something I’ll never forget. It’s a really rewarding experience donating to an organization or charity connected to the individual–plus it helps so many others also suffering from the same illness! It was my first introduction to the foundation that has become an important part of my life.

The key to giving this holiday season is to remember the person who’s sick is still the same person. They may have chemo overwhelming their body, and energy levels at an all time low, but they’re still the friend or loved one that you’ve always known. Their interests, hobbies, and passions aren’t lost when diagnosed; rather, they use those same sources of positivity to help make their fight more tolerable. Distract them, help them, and most importantly, provide hope.

Heather Von St. James

Heather Von St. James

Heather Von St. James is a mesothelioma cancer survivor who works as an advocate for cancer research, mesothelioma awareness, and the banning of asbestos.
Heather Von St. James

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