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Food gifts and sympathy

A family friend was diagnosed with cancer this week. He and I never knew each other well, but I feel like I need to do something beyond a card and think flowers are too funerary. I'm tempted to bake a pie or something, but unless someone has requested help for their household that way (ie, cooking meals so they don't have to, which I do for another cancer victim), it feels somehow inappropriate for me to offer food when he's going through something more significant ("Sure, cancer is horrible, but pie will make it all better, right?"). Do you give food gifts out of sympathy?

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  1. Usually food offerings are totally welcomed for bumpy times, but, you're right, this is a bit different. Of course, you can always offer to prepare meals to the family's specifications and his medical restrictions for later on.

    Everything depends on the type of cancer and whether the patient is undergoing chemo or radiation or no treatment.

    A young friend went through chemo for breast cancer several years ago, and I made her a basket with a pink sweatshirt to keep her warm when sitting in the cool chemo room, some Stomach Ease Tea and ginger candy to settle a queasy tummy, a Burt's Bees lip balm, Gold Bond Ultimate lotion, a gel eye mask to chill in the fridge, an ocean sounds soothing CD, a lightly scented relaxation candle, and a blank journal.

    Everything got used, but the ginger candy was particularly successful and she requested more. She used the journal for keeping track of not only appointments and personal thoughts, but what foods she found agreed or didn't, and her bucket list. Three years later, she's a survivor and may have to add to her bucket list, as she's plowing through it vigorously!

    You may want to put together a supportive gift right now -- books, pomegranate juice, anything from the above list that might work -- and offer to help with meals when the family knows what they need. Sometimes patients get mouth sores from radiation or find that only pasta and potatoes stay down with chemo.

    It's so hard to know what to do, but you and your compassion will figure it out.

    1 Reply
    1. re: nemo

      I think if you don't know the person very well, food is always a good gift. My dad has been living with non-hogkins for the past 3 years. It is and has been a rough road. Any way you reach out will be felt and appreciated.

    2. I tend to feed others in many situations.
      If what you are cooking/doing/saying/giving is from your heart, you can never go wrong.

      1. My mom does this often and I do my best to follow in her footsteps. Here are two stories that come to mind:

        When my aunt had cancer and was in NY for treatment, she hated the hospital food so much she was in tears. Nothing tasted right and she just wanted something that tasted familiar. She asked if I would go shopping and bring groceries, so we took a day trip and brought what she requested: Stouffer's fettucine Alfredo, some ham and some peas so she could have some makeshift carbonara in the hospital.

        A dear friend of my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer last summer. We went to visit her in the hospital and my mom brought homemade shortcake biscuits, cut up fresh strawberries and whipped cream--all the fixins. By this time, my mom's friend was not doing very well, but she relished every last bite of the shortcake and hugged my mom and thanked her so much for bringing it.

        My mom also knits prayer shawls for people with cancer--some for people she knows, many for people she has never met.

        So, it's not that a "pie (or a prayer shawl!) will make it all better." But sometimes a favorite baked good or meal or treat can bring some joy to someone going through a very miserable illness.

        1 Reply
        1. re: kattyeyes

          My FIL had horrible dry mouth after chemo so he appreciated soup very much..soft food that wouldn't get stuck in his dry mouth. Pasta was good too.

        2. If the family friend is someone who you know enjoys food, it is always appropriate to give food! They will appreciate the thought, even if they can't necessarily appreciate everything in the gift. Also, even if they can't directly appreciate the food because they have no appetite, or because of bad side effects like nausea, mouth sores, etc., they can offer them to their family and friends, who also could use some comforting too. Cancer affects everyone, not just the patient.

          I think a small selection of items works best, something fresh, like a pie, but also dried goods like tea or candy for later on, so that if they aren't up for anything right away, they have something they can enjoy later on when they feel up to it.

          I hope your family friend does well with treatments. I am sure they will appreciate your gesture greatly.

          1. I tend to be a food giver at times like that, because it's just what I do. Meals over desserts, even though i'm a baker, just because it can help feed the rest of the family, if i don't know their tastes well.

            Often times, we're stuck in the "I don't know what to do" phase, and might opt for inaction so that we don't make the wrong move, or say the wrong thing. Simply admitting that to the person is a move, along with asking what you can do.

            Two weeks ago my father was diagnosed with a form of lung cancer, after months of testing and waiting. He loves to eat and thankfully it has not affected him in this way. He also loves to talk and socialize. He hasn't started treatment yet, but yesterday friends invited them to a family barbeque where they ate and hung out like before, and had a great time. Not only did this seem to do my parents a world of good, but also speaking for myself, just knowing that someone cared and lifted his and my Mom's spirits did ME a world of good.

            It is in NO way inappropriate to offer food of any kind in this situation, it does'nt matter if it's one cookie, or a cup of coffee. The fact that you cared enough to do ANYTHING means a lot to people.

            If you have the urge to help, that is fantastic. Re: "but unless someone has requested help for their household that way ".... I can tell you from first hand experience as someone who finds asking for help, or admitting that I need someone to lean on difficult at the best of times.... if you were to wait, you may never be asked. In a situation like this, sometimes even that alone can require too much energy or thought to muster courage to ask for help. If you're already feeling a bit sorry for yourself and like a bit of a burden, you'll certainly never ask. If you're proud, and not used to being in that situation, ditto.

            Oddly enough, I was at the bookstore yesterday looking for something about alternative medicines / recipes for those with cancer, and had a flick through some of the other unrelated books on the topic. One was about helping friends and family as they go through this. One thing that was mentioned was the "call me if you need anything" and while a heartfelt offer, wasn't really helpful. I related to it. While i'm not the person who has cancer, this has been a nightmare (particularly as I do not live near my family). Even on my best days i'm not likely to pick up the phone and go looking for help with anything.

            I would think in this situation, no gesture would go unwelcome.

            2 Replies
            1. re: im_nomad

              I agree completely with Im_nomad's point that you should not wait for them to ask for something. When you receive bad news like this, there is just so much on your mind, so much you have to process. The last thing you want to do is make more decisions, or try to figure out what you need. You just don't have the energy to think about anything.

              I have almost never called anyone and asked for something, no matter how sincere the offer. It is actually a relief when someone takes charge and says "I'm doing this, is that ok?" Now, you don't want to be too pushy and insist on things, as that isn't helpful either. But a cheery "Hey, I'm planning to do this, are you up for it? If not, that is ok too" is really appreciated.

              1. re: moh

                yes yes yes! just do it. don't say you want to, don't offer 'if you need anything' - just break the ice and go do it- i fully agree.

                i would probably border on pushy at times, because i don't like being told no :o)
                no one should be ignored either, i figure if they need space i will sense it- otherwise i am there as often as i can be, always bearing goodies and hugs.....

                Cookies are impossible to hate. bring cookies (and maybe the milk and coffee too) and invite yourself to stay for a bit and help eat them. (sometimes people have a tendency to stay away thinking the 'sick' person needs rest. i saw it happen with my mom, the friends and relative visits dried up and towards the end, when things got ugly, a small group would have been a welcome distraction for her. i stood by her and silently vowed to NEVER let anyone suffer alone (and unfed!) if i could help it.

            2. If you can, find out if he has dietary restrictions/food allergies. Also, keep in mind that if he is going to go through chemo, some foods will be easier to keep down than others.

              Here are some links with suggestions:
              I grew up in a community that prepared food for families going through challenging times.

              1 Reply
              1. re: lgss

                I cannot understress checking with him about food preferences. When a dear friend underwent radiation and chemo therapies, his salivary glands were virtually destroyed and his throat got very raw (fortunately, he's survived but 3+ years later, swallowing often is still difficult). Downing meat and acidic foods were torture.

                We prepared many soups with flavorful meat stocks -- veggie purees, lentil/bean soups, broccoli cheese soups -- enriched with milk, cream, eggs, etc. Also, lots of fruit/ yogurt smoothies. All were packaged in single portions for easy warm-up. (He lived alone and tired easily from his treatments.)

                He also enjoyed my husband's home-baked foccacia with the soups and roasted/braised veggies; it's got a soft crumb and is moistened by the herb oils.

                So, ask what his preferences are b/c they may change during his treatment and allow him to plan/anticipate whatever treats you might bring.

              2. I can see that I might well be in the minority, but, i would refrain from food gifts unless you have at least asked ahead of time. If someone is unwell not only may the food not be wished for at that time but they might not be able to eat or enjoy it due to the inless itself, or dietary restrictions.

                Please consider that if someone is ill they are often very tired and while it might seem like food is a well thought out gift it may mean that they have to really shift around things in the fridge or freezer just to make something fit and that can be frusterating for the unwell person.

                If you would like to create a dish for somone tell that that you would like to do it for them. Ask them if it would be OK if you made X dish and ask them when it would be convenient for them to drop it off if they say yes - would they prefer something frozen for later perhaps or something fresh. Maybe they would really appreciate having you stop by at dinner time with a dish already warmed and ready to eat like a takeout dinner - maybe a single portion of something so as not to need to deal with leftovers. You could also depending on the person ask if you could join them for dinner wether it be at your home vs a busy restaurant so they can get out or theirs where you could do the work of cleanup for them.

                One gift that people often overlook is the gift to help clean a home of someone that isn't well. Running a vaccum or cleaning windows might not take long and if you ask might be a welcome gesture at a pre-arranged time for someone you know well enough to ask.

                1. Food that can be eaten later- sealed lunchmeat packages, microwavable/frozen vegetables, frozen fruits or fruit based popsicle like treats, cookie dough that can be baked whenever is more welcome.

                  When my dad died, a friend was at the door with a meat and cheese and bread tray the next morning. By the afternoon after his funeral (5 days later) we were sick of having to eat all that stuff for every single meal.

                  Sometimes only the caretaker needs to eat because the person undergoing chemo is on liquid meals (some chemo causes blisters in the mouth and esophagus).

                  I prefer to send flowers while people are living. It doesn't matter once they are dead.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Cathy

                    Or maybe a live plant with self-watering system...

                  2. If he's someone you don't know well, I wouldn't bring/send food. There are medical no-no's as well as personal dislikes. I know I differ from majority. I'd send cards regularly - twice a week, whatever.

                    1. Whatever you bring from a flower to warm socks, your gift tells the person you care. Call and tell the person you are bringing a gift of food and ask if there are restrictions. Taylor the size of your gift to the household. An appetite damaged by illness might look at a big piece of anything and be put off. A small portion might tempt. You can always take more at a later date. Take the gift in a disposable package. Do not expect a thank you note. Limit your stay even if the conversation seems to be flowing; ten minutes tops. Never mention how busy you are. Do not thrust your ability to be up and about into the face of someone who is confined. Tell them why you came; that you admire them, that their life touched yours in some way. When you are feeling useless, it helps to be reminded that your life has worth.

                      1. If you never knew him that well, I don't think I'd give food. How about a plant instead of flowers?

                        1. As a former cancer patient...

                          You bring me pie made with your own 2 hands and it will warm my spirit and fill my tummy.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Brandon Nelson

                            Inspiring stuff going on here, guys keep up the GOOD work!!! Any gestures that are heartfelt and caring wouldn't go unnoticed by me. Think about the situation you are aware of, ask questions of anyone involved, if you can, then go with your gut. Better to make your concern known, than do nothing. When there was a recent death in my family, (my mother) - no neighbor, did anything. Those few left in my family are at a distance and (1) family member sent a plant. The plant is still alive, and I appreciated the gesture. I really felt isolated, and the isolation further saddened me. If there was cooking to be done, I did it. Reach out - for life's sake!

                          2. When an acquaintance (now a friend) was going through radiation, he and his wife decided not to disrupt the planned summer at the cottage for the kids while he stayed in the city for treatment. So several of us took turns having lunch with him. Sometimes he did not eat much just bread and sometimes he had a full meal. But he was so happy to to go 'out and about' and have someone to talk to. I really did not know he very well at the beginning of the summer but that time really grew our friendship.

                            So I think anything you can do from baking a pie to shopping for special treats says that you care about what he is going through.

                            1. Our next door neighbor was diagnosed a few months ago with a type of throat cancer that required him to live on a liquid diet fed through a tube to his stomach. He was allowed to drink some liquids as well. Both he and his wife are not cooks, they run their own business, she works part time outside the home as well and they have a VERY active 8 yr old son. Between trying to take care of everything and dealing with the time and tribulation of his chemo/radiation treatments I knew they had little desire for cooking anything or preparing liquids that he could consume. I took it upon myself to have a simple meal waiting for them in the evenings when they got home exhausted from the hospital. Usually entailed nothing more than cooking a few extra portions when making our own dinner for the wife and son and simmering homemade stocks with vegetables and seasonings and then straining them out for him, or going a little further and making a batch of consomme. They were very grateful that they could come home in the evenings and relax after the severe tensions of the day with a nice meal before falling in bed exhausted. Now that the crisis has passed our neighbor told me that such a simple thing as the broths and consommes not only gave him something he could look forward to and keep down but also soothed his poor raw throat (he insists that my strawberry shortcake which he blended smooth with lots of milk has magical properties) and having ready dinners helped keep peace in their household. Call it sympathy, empathy, concern, whatever, but helping friends and family (and strangers too) in crises with simple acts of kindness heals everybody involved in some way.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: morwen


                                You are a fine neighbor, wish you lived next door to us. God bless!

                              2. Here in the south, a gift of food is ALWAYS welcome. If you're worried about diet/appetite concerns, take something that can be frozen for later use: bundt cakes, cookies, brownies, soups, stews...something that can be quickly heated for a hearty meal. However, I know a good banana puddin' goes a long way toward making anybody feel better...and it always thoughtful and appreciated!