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Chemo vs. Taste Buds: The Culinary Side Effects of Cancer

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When my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV Colorectal cancer in May of 2012, the last thing our family wanted to give up was our favorite pastime: eating. But chemotherapy does more to the appetite than cause nausea; it affects the way things feel and taste. Rather than let his treatments kick us in the palate, we problem-solved ways to continue enjoying meals together from the doorbell to the dishes. From our family to yours, here are a few things to be mindful of when breaking bread with someone taking chemotherapy.

Temperature Tolerances Change

The first time I witnessed my dad do anything publically spontaneous, it was him smashing a papaya soda can on his forehead in a Cuban restaurant. Two weeks into treatments, the chemotherapy had affected his ability to handle cold beverages. Asking the waitress to nuke his soda proved awkward. Fortunately, the owner suspected a medical reason for the request and came to the rescue with a toasty can from her summer-seasoned garage. Since that incident, we’ve learned to ask for beverages without ice.

Some Days are Better Than Others

That evening was shortly after one of my dad’s first infusions. We had set that date intentionally, knowing the “good drugs” would be coursing through his system. And they were coursing hard. As a steroid-induced “thank you” for the warm soda delivery, my dad pulled out his best John Belushi impression in a uncharacteristically attention-grabbing act of triumph.

Spices Become Trickier

Thai, Mexican, Indian, you name it, my family loves them all. But some flavors are harder on the taste buds because spice sensitivity gets amped up from treatments. Formerly tolerable levels of spiciness can burn the mouth, while not enough spice makes food taste flat. Our solution has been to avoid peppers and traditionally hot spices, and to seek out more neutral or cooler spices such as basil, oregano and cilantro. We can always depend on my grandmother’s traditional German recipes from the old country, and Italian has become a safe bet as well.

And Then Spices Get Awkward

One of my favorite recipes is my dad’s homemade spaghetti. When treatments took his taste buds away, he asked me to step in on the seasoning front in exchange for knowledge of his secret ingredients. Unbeknownst to me, my mom had already been blasted by a salt explosion in a previous spaghetti incidence, a transgression which meant my dad could no longer be trusted as a reputable seasoner.

Some Things Never Change

We have continued experimenting with a number of foods to determine what still tastes great. Some vegetables have taken on a metallic flavor, while others have not. Many foods taste blander so more salt is necessary, making sodium levels important to keep an eye on. But all things in balance, it has become meaningful to ask questions about my dad’s preferences prior to planning a meal. And to always end with a dessert. Cake, doughnuts, and Oreos all still taste great according to my dad. Or so he says.

Has pregnancy, medical treatment, or another health event caused a change in your eating habits? Share your experiences in our comments section below.

About the Author:

Kristin Boehm is the Creative Designer at CaringBridge.org. When not designing creative materials for the organization, she enjoys gardening, knitting and exploring Minneapolis.

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2 Replies

  • By Sally

    I’ll never forget my husband’s first chemo treatment. We were in college, he was 22 and pretty fresh from having a brain tumor removed. His chemo was pretty non-invasive. Four giant pills for one week each month.

    Since he was tough, he decided not to take his anti-nausea pills. Since we were young and stupid, we decided we could still eat pizza, breadsticks, and rootbeer for dinner. Pretty sure he washed the chemo down with rootbeer.

    You can see where this is going. We didn’t eat pizza for a LONG time after that. He was up most of the night, and never skipped the anti-nausea pills again.

  • By Debra

    I also love Indian and Thai foods, as well as Japanese. I’ve found that cumin actually stimulates my appetite, and even on a bad day, yellow curry tastes great!