June is National Cancer Survivor Month. It is dedicated to anyone who has personal experience with a cancer diagnosis. In 2019, nearly 17 million cancer survivors were reported in the US and that number is expected to rise to 22 million by 2030 (Miller et al., 2019).
Survivors experience numerous side effects caused by cancer and its treatment. Changes in taste is one side effect that significantly impacts eating and nutritional status, and it can linger for months and even years beyond treatment.
If you are a cancer survivor and taste changes have caused you to significantly reduce your eating habits or you’ve lost 5% of your normal weight, talk with your healthcare team. It is imperative that strategies are put in place to control any unintentional weight loss during cancer treatment.
Chemotherapy medications target rapidly growing cancer cells, but many other healthy, rapidly growing cells in the body can be affected as well. The cells on your tongue, for example, are highly sensitive to chemotherapy. Aside from creating tastelessness, this can lead to mouth sores, pain and irritation. There are several strategies for relieving the symptoms and to avoid any nutritional harm.
Start by maintaining good oral care – don’t stop caring for and brushing your teeth, gums and tongue even when experiencing discomfort. Talk with your healthcare team or see a dentist for the best advice on how to care for your mouth during this time.
Healthy Eating Strategies
When preparing meals, it is important to make sure you are getting the nutrients your body needs. Depending on the symptoms and taste changes that you are experiencing, here are some tips and AICR recipes to help:
- Continue to eat adequate protein. Substitute white meat, seafood, shellfish, beans, quinoa, nuts and seeds for red meat, if the latter has an offending taste. This Turkey and Barley Vegetable Soup recipe is packed with protein and is a great option for those who have trouble swallowing.
- Marinate meats to help reduce offending flavor. Make your meats flavorful by using seasonings with a little salt and some healthy oils to boost the power of the marinade. Experiment with different marinades and find something that works best for your taste buds.
- Avoid using metal utensils and eating canned foods if you are experiencing metallic taste.
- Use sweet, sour or tart additions to recipes. Try this Polenta with Fruit Compote recipe that uses naturally tart fruits.
- Use herbs, spices and naturally sweet or tart foods to add pep to the recipe. These Golden Milk Popsicles contain turmeric, ginger and cinnamon for added flavor.
- Adding fats may help bring flavors into contact with taste buds. Experiment with different oils (bland or bold flavored) and see how your taste buds react.
- If everything tastes bland, bold flavors may help. Experiment with different marinades, sauces and spices.
- If everything tastes sweet, go with savory recipes. You can also drizzle a little lemon juice or vinegar* on dishes.
- Boost calories in small portions and eat small, frequent meals if you are not eating your normal amount. Add calories and nutrients by using avocado, healthy oils, nuts and seed butters. This Avocado Mac and Cheese is rich and creamy, and loaded with essential nutrients.
- Try consuming foods at different temperatures. If hot or cold foods bother you, try consuming food at room temperature.
*If dealing with a sore mouth, limit the use of acidic foods.
For more suggestions on managing common eating difficulties during cancer, download AICR’s Cancer Resource: Living with Cancer handbook. This resource is free and was created to help cancer survivors improve their quality of life while reducing their chances of recurrence and secondary cancers.
Miller KD, Nogueira L, Mariotto AB, et al. Cancer Treatment and Survivorship Statistics, 2019. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. Accessed May 28, 2020.