Chemotherapy diet: Best foods for people undergoing cancer treatment

How you can support a loved one going through chemotherapy through their diet

Olivia Blair
Wednesday 22 March 2017 12:20 GMT


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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


For people with cancer, having it treated often brings with it a range of side effects which can be extremely debilitating.

Patients undergoing chemotherapy most commonly experience life-affecting side effects including fatigue, hair loss, weight loss, vomiting and nausea and memory and concentration problems.

One of the lesser known side effects is loss of taste. Many people undergoing the treatment suddenly find they can not enjoy the foods they usually do, or find that all food is tasting the same or that they cannot taste anything at all.

This was the experience of Ryan Riley’s mother Krista. The 47-year-old passed away three years ago from small cell lung cancer after a two year illness, during which time she had several rounds of chemo and radiotherapy.

“For her, the most depressing part was being in the knowledge that food would never really be the same. A terminal illness was not just a death sentence but a sentence to bland and disappointing food,” Riley, a food writer and stylist, told The Independent. “It’s heartbreaking to say that the only thing she could enjoy was fruit flavoured ice pops.”

Karla Scott, a cancer information nurse at Macmillan Cancer Support told The Independent: “People receiving cancer treatment may find that their tastes change and that they no longer enjoy certain foods. They may find all food tastes the same, very sweet or salty or that they may have a metallic taste in their mouth. Sometimes, they can’t taste anything at all.”

If a person’s taste buds are severely affected then what might help is an onset of stronger flavours.

Riley, 23, who cared for his mother when she was ill, struggled to know what to cook for her: “At the time, I wasn’t in the food industry, I was young and didn’t know what to do, so muddled with supermarket food and I know now we could have done better.”

Wanting to combine the experience of his mother’s illness with his new knowledge and experience of food from his job, he is now trying to improve the experience of food for people with cancer through a new venture: Life Kitchen, a start-up charity service which will provide free cooking classes to people living with their cancer as well as their families. It will focus on recipes packed strong with flavour yet are nutritious as well as providing a social environment for people going through the same thing.

The recipes for Life Kitchen – which is currently in the stages of fundraising – have not yet been finalised, Ryan recommends people living with the disease might want to eat what they normally would but with added flavour.

Scott suggests some people find strong sauces, herbs and spices more appealing in flavour as well as sharp-tasting foods like fruit, juices and bitter boiled sweet but stresses that the loss of taste might only be temporary.

“If someone with cancer does develop an aversion to a certain type of food, they should try it again after a few weeks as it may only be temporary,” she advises.

Additionally, solid food may be more difficult for people with cancer to eat so soft food like porridge, bananas, soup or yoghurt may be easier. Cold food, which might have less odour, can also help if someone’s sense of smell or appetite has been negatively affected. Energy supplements can also be added to everyday meals and drinks, to ensure people with cancer keep strong. Those who have a metallic taste in their mouth may want to use plastic cutlery, Scott recommends.

Macmillan recommends that if you are caring for someone undergoing chemotherapy, it is important to involve them in the process of cooking food that they will enjoy.

“If you’re caring for someone with cancer you should talk to them about how best to help. You could offer small meals on several occasions throughout the day as well as a range of different options including their favourite foods. You should take extra care with hygiene when preparing meals as people with cancer may be more at risk from infections,” Scott suggests.

The most important thing is that the person living with cancer is getting a healthy, balanced diet.

“Macmillan recommends that everyone having cancer treatment should try to maintain a healthy and balanced diet including nutrients and fibre, and avoid having excess sugar and salt. Alcohol should also be completely avoided for some patients.”

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