Q: I’m sure this will sound like the #FirstWorldProblems of cancer treatment, but how do I handle all the unnecessary and unwanted gifts that keep pouring in ever since I was diagnosed?
Don’t get me wrong, people have gotten me some really helpful and lovely things, but I don’t really want your late grandmother’s chemo caps, sweets that I can’t eat anyway, and cute decorative things that clutter up my house, which is difficult enough as is to keep tidy while I’m going through chemo.
Can I stop the torrent of stuff? And what do I do with the stuff that’s already here? I’m drowning.
Let me throw you a life preserver: You don’t owe polite, gracious gift acceptance to anyone.
Yes, in normal situations, it might be rude to refuse gifts or set strict boundaries on what kinds of gifts you’ll accept. (Keyword, though: might. I have to believe there are tactful ways of handling that, but that’s a different advice column.)
This, however, isn’t a normal situation. You need a home that’s comfortable, clean, and safe as you navigate treatment. You need the types of social support that actually help you, whether that’s gifts or something else. And you need to not be doing unnecessary emotional labor for other people.
First, you have my permission to do absolutely whatever you want with the stuff that’s already been given to you that you don’t want or need.
You can recycle it or throw it out. You can have a friend box it up and donate it or resell it somewhere for you. (If it’s cancer-related stuff like hats, your hospital or support group would probably love to accept it to provide to other patients.)
You can do what I did with clutter I didn’t want to deal with during treatment, which is buy a big plastic bin, dump the clutter into it, and hide the bin out of sight somewhere until you’re feeling well enough to go through it and organize everything.
I kid! I didn’t go through it and organize everything. It’s still in my basement somewhere. Do as I say, not as I do, etc.
As for stopping the flood of stuff, there are a few ways you can handle that. One is to simply decline unwanted gifts as they appear.
If someone tries to give you a gift you know you don’t want in your home, you’re allowed to say: “Thank you so much for thinking of me, but I can’t accept this. I’m trying to reduce the number of things coming into my home to make my time in treatment easier.”
I don’t have quite enough faith in humanity to promise you that nobody will try to argue with a statement like this from a cancer patient, but it’s probably unlikely.
And if it does happen, that’s when it’s helpful to have a close supporter as a backup, someone who can take over for you and redirect the determined gift-giver and perhaps urge them to instead, I dunno, make a donation to the Young Survival Coalition or something else useful.
A more proactive way to reduce unwanted gifts is to take a moment to think about what you do want and how to communicate that to as many of the people who might benefit from knowing it as possible.
When I was first diagnosed, I made a Facebook post listing some types of support I wanted (cards, letters, books) and some I didn’t (animal GIFs, donations, advice). Then, at my friends’ suggestion, I made an Amazon wish list that people could use to buy me gifts I actually wanted.
I encouraged my friends to circulate these things through our social network so people would know, and so I wouldn’t get bombarded with constant questions about how to help.
Most people probably realize the most impactful ways of supporting a cancer survivor aren’t material things but rather acts of service and intangible emotional gifts we rarely have the words to ask for.
But when people feel powerless to provide those latter things, they tend to turn to gifts, especially in our very stuff-oriented culture.
You don’t have to take responsibility for healing those feelings of powerlessness by accepting any and all gifts offered to you. You have your own healing to do.
However, if there are things that would make your days even a bit brighter, you can help everyone involved feel better by asking clearly for those things.
And then you may find yourself having to purchase an entire new bookshelf after treatment. But that — not your question — is truly a good problem to have.
Yours in tenacity,
Miri Mogilevsky is a writer, teacher, and practicing therapist in Columbus, Ohio. They hold a BA in psychology from Northwestern University and a master’s in social work from Columbia University. They were diagnosed with stage 2a breast cancer in October 2017 and completed treatment in spring 2018. Miri owns about 25 different wigs from their chemo days and enjoys deploying them strategically. Besides cancer, they also write about mental health, queer identity, safer sex and consent, and gardening.