My friend/sister/aunt has just been diagnosed with breast cancer – what do I do to help?  Is there a suitable gift I can send?

Once you’ve been touched by cancer it’s amazing how often you meet people who know someone going through the journey.  Only this morning my husband and I bumped into an old friend who asked me these exact questions.

I’ve been very open about my experience and I’m often asked by people what they should do for their friend, and what would be a suitable gift for those friends farther away.  Well I and many of the folk I meet would say the most amazing gift of all is your time.  To take the time to go and visit your friend at home and having a relaxing chat, or taking them out for coffee or lunch is a wonderful thing.

Offering lifts, as and when the appointment schedule becomes intense.  Especially post-surgery, when your friend may not be able to drive, would also be a huge gift and somehow normalises the process, and I think connects you to the reality that your friend faces.  One dear friend of mine, Cath, regularly booked a day’s holiday, flew down from Edinburgh and sat with me or took me to lunch.  No pressure to feel well, just a glorious day spent being two normal girls talking about the progress on her construction projects and joking about our partners.

This made me laugh as clearly very unlike Cath and I!

I kid you not, I googled women in construction and here it is, honestly that’s a whole other blog ha

When I slipped away and spent an hour in the loo she didn’t bat an eye, just quietly sat working on her emails.  She just knew and that felt so good.  No explanation needed.  (For those that don’t know, chemotherapy can affect your bowel movements and cause either constipation or diarrhoea.)

Healthy food offerings are also amazing.  During times of fatigue, having a friend arrive with a gorgeous home cooked supper for you and your family feels like a gift from the gods.

“Food is a symbol of love, especially when words are inadequate”.

Many of my local friends would text me to say I’m coming with supper, not stopping just dropping it off… I would have tears of joy collecting my delicious stew, curry, chicken hot pot.  Even better when they’d made a batch and came with that night’s supper and one packaged for the freezer.  Happy days.

When your hands and feet are raw from the chemotherapy and you’re suffering from temporary neuropathy, numbness, weakness and pain, cooking supper can feel like facing a mountain.  Somehow you must climb it, to prove to yourself that you can provide for your family and to keep your strength up, but having a night off is utter bliss.

See the Health Eating Section for some ideas.

In terms of actual presents, I think most of us would say please don’t feel the need.  But if you really insist ha…

There’s no better time than during treatment to spend time resting and relaxing to aid recovery.  It’s actually more than that, it’s non-negotiable.  Your friend will need to rest whether they like it or not.  I definitely didn’t like it and fought it as much as possible, but when I submitted to rest my favourite time was spent in front of the log fire wrapped in my new lambs wool Avoca blanket, sipping green tea.  It felt quite hygge, (Danish word for a mood of cosiness, feeling warm, comfortable and safe) and extra special for me as my blanket came from the Avoca shop on my late father’s farm in Co Kerry.  The label even says it’s an ‘Irish hug’, and I really felt it.  I always felt my father’s presence during my toughest times, holding me in his arms and telling me it would all be alright my leanbh beag (little child).  I believed him!

So some sort of soft and good quality blanket to cuddle up in and relax would be a great gift.  Skin can become very sensitive during treatment, so it may be best to check the type of material.  I’d suggest soft and natural fibres.

On the note of skin sensitivity, my sister in law sent me organic hand and feet lotions, Epsom bath salts and essential oils.  I used all of them as a nightly ritual to help relax me in preparation for a great night’s sleep.  I’m sure it really helped.  I generally slept very well, and in doing so allowed my mind and body that essential time of cell repair and healing.  Frankincense was my favourite essential oil, the gift of kings no less.  Sleeping well can be difficult during treatment, due to the effects of the medication and also as the mind wanders into worry.  Any aids to a great night’s sleep would be very well received.  I really believe it takes a lot of effort to sleep well and I share my sleeping plan later on.

The obvious gift choices that actually may not be so useful…

Books – I and many people I know really struggled to read during treatment.  In my week of being diagnosed I bought a stack of good books and downloaded films.  I was actually quite excited about having time to enjoy them, but alas my mind wouldn’t allow.  The treatment affected my concentration too much and I never got beyond the first chapter of my book, or managed to watch an entire film in one sitting.  I recall the breast consultant who looked after me chatting during my biopsies (who knew they would be so very unpleasant, and that’s an understatement) about the film Hidden Figures and recommending it.  His wife had loved the film, and I as an engineer might enjoy it – well I did, it’s an incredible film, really inspirational.

I did enjoy an audio book that was sent by a friend but it put me to sleep too… I’m not sure how much I absorbed in my sleep ha!

Flowers is a slightly weird one as I know some ladies that were reminded of funerals when they were sent lilies, clearly not great or the desired effect.  I didn’t feel that way, but I can understand the association.

A notebook to be able to record appointments, write up medical notes, muse over thoughts and feelings, and a journal of the cycle.  This is great to help your friend plan future dates, knowing when they’re likely to get what reactions, and when they will pick up before the next treatment round.  My notebook was a gift from a friend and saw me through the whole year.

 

Nice scarves.  Not everyone loses their hair, but if it’s likely a scarf could be a great gift when your friend has decided on their head covering choice.  I had a wig but only wore it to work functions and official things.  Day-to-day I wore vibrant coloured scarves tied into a turban style.  It’s a knack to get the tie right but they look great, very glamorous indeed.  I always felt the world should know what I’m going through, and it’s amazing the kindness that arrives if you allow it in.

 

Cashmere socks- surely the ultimate luxury.  Chemotherapy can make your feet feel very cold so a pair of cashmere socks is like walking on clouds and so so toasty warm.  Gloves or hats are also fantastic.

Preparing for an operation

If your friend needs surgery they may need to spend a week in hospital.  A dressing gown and slippers are essential for this time, so a nice new set of PJs or a gown could be a great treat.  My husband bought me a pair of PJs and they’re fab.  On the rare days I couldn’t manage to get dressed I still looked great(-ish!), it’s all relative I guess.

I didn’t care to look in the mirror a whole lot during these times.  But when I did, I acknowledged my total body baldness and as much as I didn’t feel sexually attractive (I looked like an old man), I smiled into the mirror at my inner beauty.  A mind and body fighting with every cell of my being to cure me, so feck the baldness, the swollen limbs and raw skin.  I really learnt the inner depths of beautiful in the most profound way.  How ironic that I’ve never loved my body more, including every single hard won battle scar.  I don’t want to mislead on this the results of my surgery are amazing, I’m so grateful for this.

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