Taste makes up part of the body’s unique alarm system. It helps direct us towards foods that are good for us, and keeps us away from foods that are potentially harmful. Combined, smell and taste work as a driving force to push us towards making food decisions that will nourish us, and help us fulfil our daily vitamin and mineral requirements. Unfortunately, certain cancer treatments can cause damage to these systems and disrupt the body’s signals, altering sensitivities to taste and smell.
If you’re having treatment for cancer, you might experience changes in your appetite and relationship to food. You might feel less inclined to reach for the foods you once enjoyed, feel nauseous thinking about certain foods, or it’s possible you might even go off food entirely. These changes can be unsettling, but it’s important to remember that very often they are only temporary, and there are a number of steps you can take to keep yourself on track during this time. Managing tastes, and maintaining a healthy diet and weight can be really important in making a full recovery.
Almost half of people undergoing cancer treatment will find that their sense of taste changes in some way or other. For many, this will involve having a metallic taste in mouth, sometimes referred to as “chemo mouth”. This metal taste is actually very common and can happen at any point during or after cancer treatment.
Whilst it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for a metallic taste in mouth, it’s thought that certain drugs can damage cells in the oral cavity. The use of particular drugs in chemotherapy can disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in your mouth altering taste buds. There are also specific drugs that are known to cause a metal taste in your mouth whilst they’re being administered. You might want to ask your doctor who will be able to let you know if this is an expected side effect of a particular drug in your treatment plan.
If you’re having radiotherapy on your head or neck (such as to treat oral cancer), it’s also common to experience changes or loss in taste. Even though the radiation is specifically targeted, it’s difficult to completely avoid hitting the salivary glands. Our salivary glands play a crucial role in taste, dissolving food into a solution so it can enter our taste buds. When we lose our salivary glands, it’s always going to have an impact on the way we taste different foods.
Unfortunately, there’s no specific medication that can help your tastes return to normal following cancer treatment. And there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to finding ways to better manage a metal taste in mouth and cancer.
However, there are a few steps you can take to try and stimulate your taste buds and edge your appetite back slowly. The best thing we can advise is to have a play around and see what works for you. Try listening to your body, and going for the foods that do taste and smell good. It can be frustrating when tastes change or disappear, but it’s good to remember that very often these changes are not permanent. The most important thing is that you keep your nutrition up so you can boost your immunity, and support your body on the road back to wellness.
If you’re currently experiencing a metallic taste, cancer patients have found some of the following tips helpful in stimulating their senses back into action:
• Try to avoid eating 1 - 2 hours before chemotherapy and about 3 hours afterwards. Sometimes the nausea brought on by certain treatments can put you off the foods you ate most recently. By avoiding eating anything directly before or after treatment you can prevent bad associations with foods.
• Try adding different spices and flavours to your food. Some people find that this can kick-start their taste buds into action. (However, avoid sharp tastes if you’re suffering from mouth sores).
• Sucking on citrus fruits which leave a taste in your mouth can sometimes help disguise bad tastes.
• Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Committing to a big plate can feel daunting when your appetite is low.
• Invite a friend over to eat with you. A good conversation can distract you from any negative thoughts you might have around eating.
• A lot of people find that red meat takes on a metallic taste after cancer treatments. Try to switch up red meats for other protein-rich foods such as chicken, eggs or nuts, all of which are less likely to leave a metallic taste in mouth.
• Some people find opting for sweeter tastes can stimulate their taste buds. Try to go for something healthy and nutritious like a coconut flavoured ice cream.
• Steer clear of metal dishes and utensils where possible. Bamboo cutlery, chopsticks or porcelain soup spoons make great alternatives.
• Cold foods are sometimes easier to stomach than hot foods as they normally have less of an aroma.
• Try rinsing your mouth out with a mild solution of baking soda and salt water between meals - or even midway through eating. This can help with mouth sores and also neutralise bad tastes in your mouth.
• Keep a diary of taste changes. This can help your treatment team pinpoint what caused your taste and appetite changes, and also help direct you towards ways to better manage them.
Please note: if you’re experiencing changes to your taste or appetite, always let your doctor know so they can help guide you in making the best food choices.
It’s important to keep on top of any taste changes as they will inevitably have an impact on the food choices you make. Making drastic changes to the way you eat can lead to malnutrition and vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can disrupt the body’s healing process. A commitment to eating well helps provide the body with the support it needs so it can turn its focus to recovery.
Food plays an important part in everyday life. It can be unsettling when the things we once took pleasure in change… Some people find that shifting their perception of food can help steer them towards making better food choices - even when appetite fails. Whilst the pleasure of eating might not be the same, turning your focus to the good it’s doing, and embracing the nourishing quality of different foods can help. Sometimes just the smallest changes can help steer us towards making healthier choices.
If you’re having chemotherapy, most people find that their sense of taste returns about 3 - 6 weeks after finishing treatment. With radiotherapy, people normally find their taste comes back about 1 - 2 months following treatment. Whilst most of these changes are considered temporary, some could take longer to come back. And very occasionally, some people find that certain tastes change longer term.
It’s no secret that metal cutlery can alter the taste of food. Some people find that they’re extra sensitive to these unnatural tastes during and post treatment. Switching from metal cutlery to bamboo alternatives can help neutralise a metallic taste in mouth if that’s one of the side effects you’re experiencing. Bamboo also contains powerful antibacterial properties that can help with mouth sores. It also doesn’t absorb aromas which can help for people who are experiencing changes in smell from treatment.
Some people find that preparing and storing their food in glass containers can help deflect from a metal taste in mouth and cancer.
Too salty - some people find that they’re extra sensitive to salt during this time. If this is the case try to steer clear of adding any salt to your meals. And sometimes adding something sweet to your plate like an apple puree can help to dilute salty tastes.
Too sweet - foods might taste sweetener than they did previously. Try to limit breakfast foods and snacks that contain added sugar such as cereals, dried fruits and snack bars.
Too intense - some people find that they’re extra sensitive to tastes and smells during cancer treatment. Avoid using spices and strong flavours to lessen any overpowering tastes.
No taste - some people find they can’t taste anything at all. If foods taste unusually bland try playing around with different herbs, flavours, seasonings and condiments to try and stimulate your taste buds. We have some great cookbooks designed for people going through chemo side effects that contain ingredients known to stimulate the sense of taste during cancer treatment.
Some people find they suffer from a dry scratchiness in their throat as a result of cancer treatment. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormonal therapies and even some pain medications can all cause a dry or sore throat. Cancer patients experiencing an ongoing sore throat might find extra discomfort whilst eating. Below are some tips which can help ease the symptoms of this difficult side effect:
• Keep yourself hydrated with warm, soothing teas and clear soups
• Drink warm water with honey and lemon
• Sleep with a humidifier or vaporizer in your room - the cool mist can soothe your throat through the night
• Focus on eating cold, soft foods such as ice creams and smoothies
• Gargle with warm Sea Salt water every hour until the pain subsides
Having difficulty swallowing (otherwise known as dysphagia) can make mealtimes scary, particularly if it’s something you haven’t experienced before. Certain drugs and pain medications can affect your ability to swallow, as well as specific cancers in the head or neck area. Having difficulty swallowing can cause any of the following symptoms:
• Gagging when trying to eat certain foods
• Need to swallow more frequently to clear food from your mouth
• Choking sensation when trying to swallow
• Need to clear your throat after each mouthful
• Pain when swallowing
Understandably, these symptoms can put you off eating even more. If you’re experiencing problems swallowing, it’s important to talk to your doctor who might be able to label the cause and lessen some of the symptoms. There are also a number of steps you can take to make eating more comfortable if swallowing has become difficult:
• Sit upright whilst eating and swallowing
• Focus on eating pureed, nutritious foods such as blended meats, vegetables and fruits
• Try eating thicker liquids as some people find these easier to swallow
• Certain medications can be crushed into pureed sauces to make swallowing easier (always check with your doctor if this is an option with your specific medication)
• Steer clear of eating dry foods like crackers and biscuits
• Avoid spicy and acidic foods
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