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Sep 5, 2009 08:01 AM

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.