Our food choices and how we enjoy it is deeply rooted in how it looks tastes and smells. For cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy their appetite or sense of smell may be affected, making eating more of a chore than something to be enjoyed. For some the smell of food cooking will drive them out of the kitchen, for others the sight or smell may trigger nausea. Chemotherapy can also give food a metallic taste. Some patients may experience a loss of appetite and be less interested in eating simply because they are not hungry.
But, the importance of eating for cancer patients cannot be overlooked. “Food is medicine. You have to eat to improve your chances of the treatment working,” says Dr. Gerald Miletello, an oncologist formerly at the Baton Rouge Clinic. It is not uncommon for family members, caregivers and friends to also become involved. Constant pushing or even nagging the cancer patient to eat may have an opposite effect and result in their eating even less food than if they had been left alone.
So, what causes a chemotherapy patient to lose interest in food? While the scientific reasons for why chemotherapy affects a cancer patient’s taste buds are not entirely known, a decrease in appetite is thought to a result of damage to the taste buds from the chemotherapeutic agents themselves. Other treatments may also affect taste, including drugs or radiation to the head and neck which cause the salivary glands to produce less secretions leading to a dry mouth. Worse yet, some chemotherapy drugs can result in changes to the sense of taste and smell, lasting from several weeks and even up to three months.
There are things the cancer patient can do, however, that will minimize the effects of chemotherapy and help to maintain good nutrition throughout treatment:
- Eat smaller amounts of food at more frequent intervals;
- Suck on mint hard candy to stimulate your taste buds, this is particularly helpful for patients with mouth sores or sore throats as a result of treatment;
- Get help with food preparation if you are sensitive to the smell or sight of food;
- Eat more food during the morning as most people are hungrier at this time;
- Create a dining experience by making it as pleasant as possible by eating with family or friends, enjoying your favorite music in the background, and so forth;
- Eat with plastic or disposable utensils as metal utensils intensify the metallic taste as a result of chemotherapy.
Accredited cancer programs, large treatment facilities and academic centers usually offer nutritional counseling for cancer patients. A patient and their family or caregiver should feel comfortable consulting with these experts to gain better insights and tips on how to maximize nutrition that is so important to the cancer treatment process.
In summary, the cancer patient needs to take some precautionary steps to ensure that they receive adequate nutrition while they are undergoing chemotherapy. The effects of chemotherapy can be distressing and impact the patient’s desire to eat, but there are steps that can be taken to make eating more pleasurable and ensure that the patient maintains adequate nutrition to help maximize the effects of their cancer treatment and get them back on to a healthier lifestyle more quickly.