ELLSWORTH — Cooking often is the last thing cancer patients have time, energy and appetite for. But some local residents undergoing cancer treatment are taking comfort and pleasure in appetizing meals prepared for them.
Several years ago, Southwest Harbor resident Mary Ann Perlman started Home Cooked Healing, a nonprofit group that works with the Beth C. Wright Cancer Resource Center in Ellsworth. She was inspired partly by her own experience making meals for a woman with terminal cancer more than a decade before. The terminally ill woman had been asked what would improve the quality of her remaining time. The answer: prepared meals.
Perlman cooked and delivered the meals until her client died.
“It was one of the most moving experiences of my entire life,” she recalled. “I can’t tell you how grateful and excited she was to get that food.”
One Thanksgiving, she roasted two turkeys, one for her own family and the other for the client.
“I remember bundling the turkey and the stuffing and everything in the car and taking it to her,” she related “I remember her calling me in tears thanking me for that dinner. That was about 15 years ago.”
Since then, the idea of cooking for a cause was born and continued to percolate until Perlman formed a group five years ago. Initially, the concept was to cook for people experiencing a crisis such as a fire or job loss. But the need among cancer patients became apparent.
“We’ve pretty much been cooking for people with cancer since January 2015,” said Perlman. “All they can think about is their whole life has been turned upside down. They have doctor appointments to make. This is just one thing we can take out of that equation. It’s a huge help.”
Judie Noonan of Bar Harbor was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in August and has been having meals delivered since September.
Noonan, whose closest relative is in Portland, described the service as “a godsend,” and “one less thing to worry about.”
“They’re all very, healthy and they taste good,” Noonan said. “One lady makes a butternut squash and curry soup that is just to die for. It’s not your mother’s American chop suey; it’s really interesting meals.”
Noonan faces three more rounds of chemotherapy and then her oncologist will consider her in remission. Ovarian cancer is often described as a silent killer because symptoms don’t always surface until the disease has spread. Noonan said she knew something was wrong last summer when she got really puffy and then her abdomen began to swell. At 64, she said she knew she wasn’t pregnant.
“I went to the doctor thinking they’re going to give me a diuretic and send me on my way,” Noonan said. “Instead, they did an ultrasound and a CAT scan and they found it.”
The group gets referrals of cancer patients from Beth C. Wright Cancer Resource Center Executive Director Michael Reisman. The effort relies on a pool of well-trained, organized volunteers who cook and deliver meals.
Taylor Mace of Southwest Harbor coordinates the volunteers planning each week’s meals as well as making sure there are enough cooks and people to deliver meals. That enables Perlman to focus on fundraising.
“I said, ‘Yes’ because I love cooking,” Mace said, “and I’ve had lots of people close to me suffer from cancer.”
But, Mace also cooks when there aren’t enough volunteers to cook all the meals.
“I’d be cooking dinner anyway,” Mace said. “When I cook on Sundays, I cook enough for my family and I to have one meal and the rest is for the clients.”
“Foods need to be easily digestible and calorie-rich,” Mace explained. “Many clients prefer soft foods depending on what type of treatment they are receiving. Radiation patients tend to dislike anything acidic like tomatoes, since it can burn their mouths and be uncomfortable.”
“We never add sugar or use soy products, since those hormones can be counterintuitive to treatment,” Mace continued. “Our foods tend to be relatively bland, but tasty. Clients can always add in spices, but we keep it pretty basic. We work around many dietary restrictions, whether that is basic food preferences or aversions due to treatment side effects.”
Another volunteer cook, Melissa Ossanna, prepares meals as well as a bone broth for all the cooks’ use.
Perlman raises enough money to buy organic meat and chickens from local farmers. Some ingredients also are procured from Peekytoe Provisions and A&B Naturals.
Fresh and organic food is key.
“We feel like people who are going through chemo and radiation are getting enough chemicals in their systems,” Perlman said. “They need good, clean versions of their favorite food.”
Food safety also is a priority, especially since cancer patients are a high-risk population. Many of the volunteer cooks have been certified through the state of Maine’s ServSafe program.
A week’s worth of meals are delivered to families for an eight-week period. However, sometimes the service can continue for several months.
The meals are also delivered by volunteers, some of whom have built relationships with the people whom they deliver to.
To support the program, donations can be made out to Beth Wright Cancer Resource Center with “Home Cooked Healing” in the memo and sent to P.O. Box 322, Ellsworth, ME 04605.