Tips on Visiting Cancer Patients

There are some things to be mindful of when visiting cancer patients.

1) Gifts: Avoid fresh flowers or fruits.

  • Fresh flowers and fruits are the usual choice of gifts to patients, but for immuno-compromised patients, these gifts can harbor bacteria that is dangerous to them.  For some chemo patients, balloons are not recommended.  Also, if the balloon pops it will give the cancer patient an unwanted shock! Yes, it'll be better to avoid balloons.  
  • Anything to cheer up the patient will be much appreciated.  Some good gifts are:
  1. greeting cards - a handwritten note to let the patient know they are thought of, cared for and loved.
  2. paper flowers - will avoid the problems of fresh flowers, but still are beautiful and cheerful.
  3. books - to help the patient pass time.
  4. crafts - to help the patient pass time and to make something fun and beautiful.
  5. games - to help the patient pass time.
  6. movies - that the patient can watch on the computer.
  7. vinyl clings for the window or walls - adds color and fun to the room the patient is staying in and is removable.
  8. Buff headwear - If the patient will be losing hair or has already lost hair during treatment, a nice gift is a Buff headwear to keep their head warm (more about Buff here), suitable for men, women and children.

2) Make sure you are healthy and not sick.

Cancer patients going through treatment or post-treatment often have suppressed immune systems. This means that they are not able to fight off colds or flus as well as they used to. If you are sick or feel like you are coming down with something, it's best not to visit. Let the cancer patient know, and they will appreciate you canceling your visit, as the safety of the patient is the priority.

An alternative is to video conference with the patient if both of you are able to do that via the computer.  This way, no germs will be transmitted, but you can still see each other and have a conversation!  Skype provides free video conferencing.

3) Set a time to visit and be on time.

The cancer patient is under various stresses, and uncertainty adds to this stress. Set a date and exact time with the cancer patient, and make sure you're there at that time. It causes a lot of stress to the patient if you're late, or worse yet, you forget the appointment (which has happened to me before...)

4) Duration of visit.

Patients undergoing treatment usually have much lower energy levels. Keep the visit short, but see if the patient wants you to stay longer. It's ideal to let the patient know how long you're planning to visit (eg - 10 minutes). Then when the time is up, see if the patient wants you to stay longer or if they usher you to the door. It really depends on the patient. Going through an illness is terribly lonely, and having company really lifts one's spirit. So, have an open schedule to allow for staying longer if the patient would like company for longer.

5) Don't wear fragrances.

Radiation and chemo often alters the person's sense of smell. Smells that usually are pleasant can become unbearable or too strong to cancer patients.

6) Be mindful when you want to hug them or shake their hand.

It is very natural to want to show your care by a hug. However, if cancer patients are immunosuppressed, any physical contact with them is not ideal.  It's best to just ask the patient if it's ok you give them a hug or hand shake.  Remember that they are not trying to be unfriendly, they're just trying to stay germ-free and survive.  Some severely immunocompromised patients will require you to wear a mask or gown before you go into the room to visit, even if you are well. This is because germs that we have that don't cause us illness can cause an immunosuppressed patient to be sick.