Worst Gifts for a Breast Cancer Survivor

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

Giving a gift to a friend or loved one with breast cancer is a common way to show support. However, choosing a gift can be challenging, especially if you have not experienced cancer yourself. Although the thought behind the present is what matters, it's important to be mindful of your friend or loved one's physical and emotional needs.

This article will review gifts to avoid for women recovering from breast cancer and suggest items she is sure to enjoy.


Anything Related to Weight

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

Many people have a vision of cancer patients being thin and frail, but that's not always the case. Treatments for breast cancer, especially hormone therapies like tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors, can cause weight gain. In addition, women on traditional chemotherapy often receive steroids that lead to extra pounds. A reduction in activity following a mastectomy or lumpectomy can also cause significant weight gain for some women fighting breast cancer.

The opposite can also be true. Weight loss and malnutrition occur in 40%–80% of cancer patients receiving treatment. Weight loss can tempt some family and friends to give gifts meant to "fatten up" their loved ones.

Fluctuations in weight can cause a breast cancer patient to feel self-conscious about her changing body. Although it may be evident that treating her to a gym membership or gifting a bathroom scale would be less than welcoming, any gift that raises the issue of weight is better left at the store.


Sexy Clothing

Colorful bras
Colorful bras. jennyfdowning

Breast cancer surgery can leave women with a lifetime of physical and emotional scars. One study found that women recovering from breast cancer and under age 50 experienced worse body image than older women. Poor body image led to a lack of desirability, sexual intimacy, and strained romantic relationships.

Although it's tempting to uplift your loved one by buying sexy clothing, it can backfire, leaving both the giver and receiver feeling awkward.

In addition, when choosing T-shirt ideas for fundraising or as a show of support, be careful about referring to breasts as jugs, pumpkins, or other slang terms. Although meant in good humor, it can be offensive and hurtful, especially to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.


Certain Foods

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

Chemotherapy can decrease white blood cells, which help fight infections. Handling fresh flowers and eating certain foods can be dangerous for cancer patients with a compromised immune system. Ask your friend or loved one if they are on neutropenic precautions (steps that need to be taken to decrease risk of infection) before treating them to a bouquet or fruit basket.

Key foods to avoid for cancer patients with a low immune system include:

  • Raw fruits and vegetables
  • Raw meats and seafood (including sushi)
  • Raw nuts or fresh nut butter
  • Any foods that contain raw eggs (including Caesar salad dressing or homemade mayonnaise)
  • Soft and aged cheeses
  • Unpasteurized cheeses, milk, fruit juices, and vegetable juices

Furthermore, some types of cancer treatment cause mouth sores and changes in taste. This can make eating and drinking unpleasant. Simply asking, "What foods are you currently able to eat and enjoy?" can make gift buying easier. Although your loved one may not be able to partake in specific foods, a meal train to feed her family could be a practical option.


Perfumes or Scented Toiletries

Essential oil with lavender flowers
Essential oil with lavender flowers.

Blanchi Costela / Getty Images

In addition to taste changes, breast cancer treatment can also affect smell. What once had a pleasant scent may now be a foul odor. One study found that most women recover their smell six months after cancer treatment. However, a decrease in quality of life was noted for those who experienced a lack of taste and smell.

Dry skin, hair, and nails also occur with cancer treatment, requiring lotions and serums to help hydrate and heal those areas.

Thankfully there are many scent-free options for buying household products like candles and potpourri. Focusing on the physical beauty of an item rather than the smell is important. Also, receiving a soothing scent-free lotion will make your loved one feel special.


Hair Coverings

Mannequin in red wig
Mannequin in red wig.

Charlotte Steeples Photography / Getty Images

Hair loss can be a traumatic side effect of breast cancer treatment, especially since American culture emphasizes hair as a form of beauty and social acceptance.

There are several ways breast cancer survivors handle chemotherapy-induced alopecia. Combating social norms by displaying a bald head is rising in popularity, while some women may be more comfortable wearing a wig, scarf, or other head coverings.

Handling hair loss will be a personal decision for your loved one and may take several attempts at trying new methods until she discovers what feels best. So rather than gifting her a new hairdo, empowering her to follow the beat of her own drum is priceless.


Tips to Remember

3-D Gift Card
Gift Card.

ricardoinfante / Getty Images

When you choose a gift for a breast cancer survivor, the acronym RAFT is a helpful tool to use. It stands for:

  • 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; support her as she finds a new normal.
  • The gift is not about you. Keep her needs in mind when choosing.

Take out the guesswork by asking, "What can I do to show my support and bring you happiness today?" You might be surprised that the answer isn't always an object. It might be having her house cleaned, a date night with her partner, sleeping in on a Saturday morning, or having a relaxing spa treatment. Perhaps the gift is a visit from you!

If you cannot physically support your loved one but would like to lift her spirits, gift certificates are an easy way to ensure she gets something helpful and meaningful.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pila E, Sabiston CM, Taylor VH, Arbour-Nicitopoulos K. "The weight is even worse than the cancer": Exploring weight preoccupation in women treated for breast cancer. Qual Health Res. 2018;28(8):1354-1365. doi:10.1177/1049732318770403

  2. Hager KK. Management of weight loss in people with cancer. J Adv Pract Oncol. 2016;7(3):336-338.

  3. Paterson CL, Lengacher CA, Donovan KA, Kip KE, Tofthagen CS. Body image in younger breast cancer survivors: A systematic review. Cancer Nurs. 2016;39(1):E39-E58. doi:10.1097/NCC.0000000000000251

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

  5. de Vries YC, Boesveldt S, Kelfkens CS, et al. Taste and smell perception and quality of life during and after systemic therapy for breast cancer. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2018;170(1):27-34. doi:10.1007/s10549-018-4720-3

  6. Trusson D, Pilnick A. The role of hair loss in cancer identity: Perceptions of chemotherapy-induced alopecia among women treated for early-stage breast cancer or ductal carcinoma in situ. Cancer Nurs. 2017;40(2):E9-E16. doi:10.1097/NCC.0000000000000373

By Serenity Mirabito RN, OCN
Serenity Mirabito, MSN, RN, OCN, advocates for well-being, even in the midst of illness. She believes in arming her readers with the most current and trustworthy information leading to fully informed decision making.

Originally written by Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
Learn about our editorial process