Reader Question: Gift Ideas for a Student with Cancer

Hi- I am in need of your gift giving expertise! I have read you for years, and know you are way better at this kind of thing than I am! Here is the situation. I teach 3rd grade and one of my students was diagnosed with cancer in November. I have a third grade son myself. He knows my student and this hits very home to me! My class knows that H has cancer. ( That was not a fun lesson – what is cancer, how does it spread, what treatments are, etc.). So, H is getting chemo at the hospital on and off until February and will hopefully be able to come back to school in March or April, which is an eternity for a third grader! We have taken photos and emailed, and my class and the other third grade classes send cards once a week. For a big Christmas thing, I went to Build A Bear, got 25 of the hearts they stuff in the Bears, had my class sign them and make a wish for H, took photos, brought them back to Build a bear, took pictures of my son stuffing them in the bear, bought a Star Wars outfit ( that the boy likes). I took pictures of the bear around school, went to Target and had a photo book made. It was cute and he loved it. But, he is out for three more months. I want him to realize we are all thinking of him without just sending photos of us having fun ( too bad you aren’t here! We are having a party without you!) and without being too expensive. I am sure he got plenty of Christmas gifts from family and friends, so I’m looking for smaller, meaningful gifts that tell an 8 year old boy to stay strong. Any ideas? Thanks so much!


This is a hard question to even think about, because it is so sad. Henry is 8 and in the third grade, so you and I both have a very vivid mental picture here. Trying to picture what Henry might like in this situation is…a challenge, on several levels.

My opinion is that you have already had the best idea. The Build-a-Bear-with-25-hearts-signed-by-fellow-students gift was inspired, and better than anything I would have thought of. It’s sentimental and thoughtful and a great group-effort project, and resulted in a comfort item for him to hold onto. And you are already doing my next idea, which is to send regular photos and letters. You are so on this, I feel as if any suggestions I make will be things you have already thought of.

I think at this point I would focus on the letters. If you would like to do more, I think a very nice idea would be to find some way to symbolically include H in your events and celebrations, and send photos of THAT, plus a souvenir when applicable.

Here is the sort of thing I have in mind. I can picture having a photo of his face enlarged to life-sized, and putting it on a life-sized paper doll (class project: trace another student who is about his size, everyone help color it in), and then including that life-sized paper doll in various classroom events. And then I’d take photos of it with the other students, and send those photos to him with, say, a cookie from the party, and a holiday card signed by the class.

At Valentine’s Day, he could receive a class-made mailbox filled with valentines, plus a little plate of treats from the party, plus a photo of his paper doll standing by the mailbox receiving the valentines, surrounded by fellow students. After field trips, he could receive a set of photos of his paper doll on the field trip, and brochures from the location. I am not sure, since I can’t count this experience among my own, but I THINK if I were him that would make me feel included and remembered and “We are always thinking of you,” and not “We are having fun without you.”

Another idea is to talk to the child’s parent and ask what might be appreciated. Perhaps his parent will say, “Oh, he LOVES getting mail!,” and you can set up a mailbox for him in the classroom and incorporate it into a lesson plan about letter-writing, and/or have everyone contribute a dollar toward a subscription to a children’s magazine. Or perhaps his parent will say, “He is SO BORED!,” and your class can brainstorm ideas for things to send him: puzzles, books, workbooks. Or maybe he could use another pair of comfy pajamas, and everyone could chip in and help choose them.

I have a feeling that some or all of the parents of the other children in your classroom will be eager to participate. I do have experience with THIS role, unfortunately, and I remember wishing there was a way I could DO something. If a teacher had said, “If you can, please send $1 a month for little treats and gifts,” or “This year we are all doing all of our Secret Santa gifts for H,” or “Please help your child write a letter,” or “We will be sending valentines to H,” I would have been SO GLAD to have something practical to do.




I wrote to you a few months ago about a student in my third grade class who was out getting treatment for cancer.  I really appreciated all of the suggestions, and thought it was time for an update.  The good news is that H is now considered cancer free and has returned to school!
He was gone for four months.  Using Skype to keep in touch was useful, but it was kind of hard to arrange times when he felt well and it was good timing for us.  We did send lots of pictures and cards.  Each week one of the third grade classrooms send cards.  He sent in his Valentines and we sent his home to him.  He also had a birthday and we sent a video of us singing and holding up signs.  He sent us a video of his how to speech that we did in class.  I liked the idea of the ” flat H” and if he had been gone longer I would have done that too.
He had a pretty low immune system when he came back and no hair but I warned the class about germs and stocked up on hand sanitizer. He wanted to just slide right back into the rhythm of the class, but that took a few weeks.  What really helped was having the Child Life specialist from the hospital come in and give a presentation about cancer, chemo, MRI’s and ports.  I think it really made H feel better – that everyone else finally had an idea of what he had gone through.
Now his hair is mostly grown in, he is caught up both academically and socially.  He still attends a lot of special events for cancer survivors, but otherwise is a normal third grader.  Thank you so much for your help!

17 thoughts on “Reader Question: Gift Ideas for a Student with Cancer

  1. Rah

    The writer had a genius idea with the hearts, and Swistle, yours with the look-alike is equally wonderful. What a nice way to help H feel included.
    I have no specific idea, but perhaps something encouraging to send/do for H’s parents? I sat at my husband’s and son’s bedside in intensive care after an accident, years ago, and I still remember quite clearly the two times people did thoughtful things for me separately from my husband and son.
    Warm, caring, healing thoughts and prayers for H!

  2. Marilyn

    LOVE the 25 hearts.

    Swistle’s paper cut-out reminds me of a birthday treat they did when I was in kindergarten that I still remember, we got to lie down and trace our outline on a big piece of butcher paper, color it in ourselves, and then everyone in the class said one thing they liked about us that the teacher wrote around the paper for us to take home. Wonder if some variation of this would work, with the kids drawing him?

    All the good wishes to H and your sweet class.

  3. ESL

    You both have such awesome ideas. Love all of them.

    The only other thought I had was maybe a classwide version of the crappy day gifts. So a bunch of small gifts he could choose to open on the days he really needs them. I think it’s swistle who originally pointed me to the crappy day gift idea and I use it often for friends going through hard times like divorce or loved one with cancer. I haven’t done it for a kids before but I imagine it wouldn’t be hard to adapt.

  4. Rebecca

    We had a gal going through chemo in the preschool class last year. That was hard. 8 would be much harder because of the level of understanding among the children. I’m a dork for silly days like “Hot Wheels Day” or “Banana Split Day” etc and something along the lines of that. Letter prompt: what kind of ice cream sundae would you make for so and so to eat to feel better? and all the accompanying letters and drawings from that can go home. Also love the crappy gift idea. Everyone brings a token, you wrap together, put in a grab bag and tell him to open one as needed. Also- kids at that age are very aware of other kids in their situations too. Agree to talk to the parents and see if class could spread cheer to another kid- it makes this one feel very important to have his whole class cheering on not just him but others too. And maybe skype one day with the class if possible?

  5. Ronelle

    I really like the Skype or Facetime idea…maybe you can set it up with his parents so that it’s the same time each week and share a specific lesson ie a story this way he can participate in a large group activity. This may also help when he transitios back to school and may or may not look a little different. Maybe he can do a science experiment the class is working on or something like that…not so much for the academic piece but so he is part of the group. Another idea is to ask the students for some ideas. I am always amazed at the things they come up with as they think differently than adults do. Maybe you could reach out to or ask H’s parents to help get in contact with the pediatric activity liason at the hospital (or social worker etc) he/she may have some great ideas. I am sure just knowing you care means the world to the whole family.

  6. Jenny

    Lots of really great ideas!

    Does he like sports? The school I graduated from (big 12), will have the basketball team or football team sign things and send them to kids. I think pro teams might have a way to request things too.

  7. Diane

    What about getting the families involved. It’s easy to set up a meal train for the rest of the family. The kids could help make the meals, make their favorites. Sending love to them all. (My daughter is in 3rd grade too)

  8. Debbie H.

    Such incredible ideas all around! I wonder if he could get involved with the class in a different way — so he’s the giver rather than the receiver? Obviously this may not work given how he’s feeling/his personality/his level of overload with all things medical, but is there an anatomy unit or something similar coming up in your class? Or could there be? Could he maybe interview a doctor & send the info to the class?

    1. Elizabeth

      Oh I like this! If he is up for it, I imagine he’d love to share with the class his ‘insider’s’ view of the hospital. The class could help by sending in questions and he could be the reporter.

  9. Kimberly

    So many great ideas! H is fortunate to having a loving teacher like you. I second Skype/FaceTime. H probably won’t be able to have many visitors over the winter months, and having a regular date/time to talk to his friends might give him something to look forward to. And, assuming parents are on board, perhaps you could share H’s user id/phone # so that kids could contact him outside of school. I also second the idea of reaching out to the child life specialists/social worker/whatever at the hospital. They are spectacular resources. Love to H and his family.

  10. Judith

    My older nephew is the same age, and I know he loves drawing – monsters, Star Wars scenes, dragons and the like. He and his friends also sometimes gift the drawings to each other. So how about having the class creating something like his own cancer-monster-fighter-card-deck? Each kid gets a postcard-size card (sturdier than paper and a size easier to handle than letter-size when your in bed) and they can draw on it a cancer-monster they each invent and a hero fighting it in whatever way they see fit. Swords, spaceships, pudding cannons, whatever. He then has a whole box to look through whenever he feels down, with pictures of cancer getting its butt kicked, created by his friends. He might like that.

  11. Maureen

    Swistle, what about postcards? You could send out a request to your readers, and I actually think you could do the same with Postcrossing. I know the global community is very responsive to children. I would be happy to try and set something up with them, I think you see my email when I comment, right? We could set up an account, and ask for postcards from all over the world.

  12. Liz Miller

    I am loving all these ideas! Do you have access to an iPad in your class and does your student have an iPad? There are tons of games you can play with friends online. Your classroom students can take turns as his opponent or they can play cooperatively

  13. Becky

    Thanks so much for all of the ideas! We will be back to school after New Years and I will be ready to find a few new wYs to communicate. I’ll let you know what I choose!

  14. Sarah

    How about quilt squares? Each child could decorate, e.g. with fabric paint, a square of fabric or fleece and a class parent could sew them into a blanket or wall hanging for the child.

  15. Jen LC

    OMG thank you for sharing this update – I have been thinking about this story since you shared it. Best possible outcome!

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