Worst Gifts for a Breast Cancer Survivor

If you're stumped for gift ideas, these are a few you may want to avoid

It's been said that it's the thought that counts when giving a gift, but this blanket statement may not apply if you're choosing a gift for a friend or family member with breast cancer. If you haven't lived with breast cancer yourself, it can be challenging to think of the right gift. Choosing a gift for someone going through something you don't understand personally is not always intuitive.

Some gifts may sound like a good idea to you at first, until you look at it from her side. Don't feel bad if you've actually considered giving one of these gifts, as many people who don't have cancer would probably consider them thoughtful.

Take a look at the following gifts to avoid, and why, and then check out these perfect gifts for a woman with cancer instead.


Anything Related to Body Image Issues

Woman testing personal scales, partial view
Woman testing personal scales. Westend61

It may be obvious that buying a membership to Weight Watchers or Nutrisystem, or gifting a bathroom scale would be a less-than-welcome gift, but any type of gift that raises the issue of weight is better left at the store.

Treatments for breast cancer, especially hormone therapies like Tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors, commonly cause weight gain. Some women gain weight on chemotherapy as well. Even without these treatments, a reduction in activity following a mastectomy or lumpectomy can result in extra pounds.

Conversely, some people lose weight during cancer treatment, and gifts designed to "fatten up" your loved one can also be less than tactful. Either way, a change in body weight can affect body image.

Some gifts in this genre can be inappropriate. For example, breast enlargement creams could be a hurtful gift, and they aren't effective anyway.


Sexy Clothing Items She Didn't Ask For

Colorful bras
Colorful bras. jennyfdowning

Unless you know she's feeling well enough and body-positive enough for intimacy, avoid anything that may call attention to what may be her new shape. This is a very tricky area especially for partners of breast cancer survivors, but this area is definitely off-limits unless you're intimately familiar with the woman in question. 


A Blouse With A View

Sheer pink blouse hanging
Sheer pink blouse hanging. Alice Gao Photography

Before breast surgery, your cancer-fighter may have worn form fitting, low cut tops with generous armholes. After a sentinel node biopsy, there may be a long curved scar in the lower armpit, and after breast surgery, there may be other scars and changes in shape or even asymmetry. 

Scars heal over time, but at first they may make a woman feel too self-conscious to bare them publicly. Follow her lead on this.

While revealing clothes may be out, it's best to avoid the other extreme in clothing as well. You don't want to send her a message that her body is something to be ashamed of by giving her a blouse that says "cover up." 


Foodie Presents She Can't Eat

Cheese platter with different sorts of cheese, baguette and grapes on wood
Cheese platter with different sorts of cheese, baguette and grapes on wood. Westend61

Make sure you know whether or not the object of your affection has had chemotherapy recently and may have a low level of the white blood cells that fight infections (chemotherapy-induced neutropenia). With a low white blood cell count, the immune system is unable to fight off bacteria that would not otherwise pose a problem.

Gift baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables or even ready-made salads sound like the perfect gift at first thought, but should probably be avoided for a few reasons. The risk of infection is certainly one, but giving a gift of "healthy foods" can also be taken wrong. We don't know what causes most breast cancers, and you don't want to come off as implying that she needs to eat healthier than she was before her diagnosis.

Mold-containing and soft cheeses should also be avoided, especially non-pasteurized imported cheeses. These cheeses may harbor Listeria, an infection that can be serious in those with weakened immune systems. Other foods to avoid include unshelled or raw nuts and hard sausages in natural wrappers. These items can look tasty in the glossy catalogs, but your loved one may not be able to enjoy the food.

Raw foods, such a sushi, should also remain off the menu during treatment.


Cosmetics, Fragrances, and Wigs

Mannequin in a wig
Mannequin in a wig. Charlotte Steeples Photography

Women who are going through treatment for breast cancer may have very dry skin, no hair, and more fatigue than you can imagine. Hold the thought of getting her favorite fragrance until about six months after chemotherapy. Chemotherapy can change the sense of smell, and smells that were once appealing may be the opposite. The most expensive perfume may smell like rotten eggs to her.

Have you always pictured her as an auburn-haired lass? Well, that may not match her current image of herself. Better to get a gift certificate to a wig salon and let her pick her own portable hairstyle. Better yet, stay away from things that call attention to the changes in her body in the first place.

Tread carefully with any gifts that suggest there's something unattractive about her new body that she needs to change. This category is a mine field for gifts, so it's best avoided.


Gift Tips to Remember

When you choose a gift for a breast cancer survivor, remember to use RAFT:

  • Reflect on what the survivor has been through and be respectful.
  • Ask her for good gift ideas and act on her wishes.
  • Fighting cancer can change a person; don't expect her to be her old self right away, if ever.
  • The gift is not about you. Put yourself in her position, then choose.

Also, giving the gift of yourself, and visiting if you are ill or under the weather, should be avoided. An infection that is only a nuisance for you could be a serious matter for her.

If you can't find a gift that really works for the person you wish to honor, create a custom gift certificate that offers your time: a ride, a home-cooked meal, an afternoon of house cleaning, running errands, attending a doctor's visit, babysitting, or an evening at the movies in her own home. Such gifts are more precious and irreplaceable than anything you can buy.

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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What you need to know. Neutropenia and risk for infection.

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