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Images courtesy Rethink Breast Cancer

Rethink Breast Cancer will launch a new line of gifts for cancer patients packaged with a dose of frankness. They're a welcome change from the usual clichés that encumber conversations around illness, Susan Krashinsky reports

Expedient as they may be for well-wishers, hospital gift shops are not exactly ideal hunting grounds for the perfect present. There are only so many balloons, teddy bears and ready-to-wilt bouquets a sick person can take.

On Wednesday, the non-profit Rethink Breast Cancer is launching its own line of gifts designed with input from women who have been through the difficult treatment, and are unwilling to be infantalized by their illness. As such, they deal with needs that often are not discussed: One item for purchase is a bag of lemon candies to help with the nasty metallic taste that is sometimes a side effect of chemotherapy. Another is lube.

The names of the 21 products are also unusually frank: They include a planner labelled, "My-life-has-turned-into-a-series-of-appointments-so-please-don't-tell-me-this-is-all-part-of-the-big planner" and "Can't-we-ever-just-have-a-normal conversation hearts" (candy hearts with messages such as "no pity parties" and "u r my rock").

"It's a really shitty time, and people want to buy you gifts that make you feel good," said Renée Kaiman, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last March and has gone through treatment. She was part of a group of women who provided input to Rethink on the products, and was delighted when she saw the candid names attached to them. "It's bringing laughter and light into a really dark situation."

The products are yet another indication of a broader attempt to subvert the clichés that often encumber conversations around people who are sick, grieving or otherwise struggling.

"If someone's child dies, or they get cancer, there's nothing you can really say to make them feel better. Oprah couldn't say the right thing. The Dalai Lama couldn't come up with it," said Emily McDowell, a Los Angeles-based designer who captured attention last year when she released a line of "Empathy Cards" decorated with messages such as, "I'm really sorry I haven't been in touch. I didn't know what to say," and "When life gives you lemons, I won't tell you a story about my cousin's friend who died of lemons."

The cards were informed by Ms. McDowell's own experience going through treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Clearly, she struck a nerve: They are now among her greeting card company's bestselling product lines. They were so popular, in fact, that publishers came calling: She has co-written a book, out in January, called There is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful and Unfair to People You Love.

"The language that has historically been used doesn't really serve most people," she said. "It's about being there for the person, and listening. Owning up to and being honest about the challenges that come with a situation like that, is something I hope that more and more people are embracing."

When she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer in 2009, Letty Cottin Pogrebin became intimately acquainted with clichés and missteps. The New York-based writer interviewed more than 80 fellow patients for what would become her book, How to be a Friend to a Friend Who is Sick.

Among her pieces of advice: no stories about your aunt who had cancer, no lies about how great the patient looks and no God talk (treatises on God's plans can be offensive to the non-religious or those who may be grappling with their faith; "Can I pray for you?" will be more welcome than "I'll pray for you").

"I put out a plea for more candour, on both sides," she said.

While she believes that Rethink Breast Cancer's heart is in the right place, she cautioned that there is no one-size-fits-all solution: Some people may appreciate a no-holds-barred take on what they're going through, but others may not want gifts that serve as a reminder of their sickness. Loved ones who simply ask what the sick person needs from them will be more likely to do the right thing.

"It's important for us to talk about it with each other," she said, "and take the fear away."

The online store is the first foray into e-commerce for Rethink, and initially was not the assignment it handed to its ad agency, Lg2 Toronto. The group wanted a way to get its "Care Guidelines" – a sort of to-do list for those who have been diagnosed to be proactive about getting the care they need – into more women's hands. The group's focus is particularly on younger women, so the guidelines include topics, such as fertility, that often fall through the cracks with doctors accustomed to treating older patients.

Each product comes with a free copy of the guidelines, which were informed by a survey of 574 women about the care they received. The products range from $2 for a "Do Not Disturb" sign to $100 for a cashmere toque and can be combined as a care package.

"It's something that maybe the woman going through it will want for herself," said Nellie Kim, partner and creative director at lg2.

Proceeds from the products will go into Rethink's coffers, to fund its initiatives such as educational resources and advocacy for access to treatment and drug funding. The charity is hoping the products prove relevant to a wider audience.

"We didn't go pink with this," said founder and executive director MJ DeCoteau. "If you're going through any form of cancer, you will be experiencing a lot of the same things. …This is really different, and the ideas come from the women themselves. A lot of the young women we work with have that sense of humour. It comes from them."