Nearly everyone I meet who has been through or is going through cancer treatment, myself included, has had to deal with the rather sneaky side effect of taste changes during chemo. I call it sneaky because unlike nausea and hair loss, it’s often glossed over during the side effects discussion because it affects each individual so very differently. No-one can predict exactly how it will strike, but strike it will. Here’s what happens: the chemo drugs kill the quick growing taste cells on your tongue making your taste go haywire. It’s a similar mechanism to the one that makes you lose your hair. The most common complaint is of the heavily metallic taste that hangs around in your mouth. It turns water from a refreshing clean drink to something that tastes about as appetizing as mineral oil. Tea, coffee and sodas fare no better. Favorite foods can suddenly taste unfamiliar, and not in a good way. It’s hard to know what to do.
The good news is that once chemo is over your tastebuds go back to normal, but during this time you may have to make changes. If you use cast iron cookware, the seasoned kind not the enameled, it may be a good idea to shelve it as it can add to the metallic taste, and if things get really bad, avoid canned foods and use plastic utensils to eat with. But my best piece of advice is that if something you normally enjoy eating starts to taste weird, leave it alone and try something new. It is never going to taste how it should until chemo is over, no matter what you cook it in or eat it with, and by chasing the taste you may set yourself up for a lifelong aversion. This is a great time to experiment with food and flavors to find out what works best for you. Like many on chemo, I found strong tastes to be a boon, by this I mean spicy cuisines like Indian, Korean and Mexican. If you’ve never tried this type of food, start cooking with mild curry powder or sweet spices like cumin and turmeric and take it from there. Do this with care. Some strong tastes, and particularly certain cooking smells can become really unpleasant. For me it was fish, and in particular salmon. To this day salmon is a food that I still can’t fully enjoy because of my aversion to the smell during chemo. Once you know a food or aroma is a trigger, avoid them, there are other foods out there.
Quirky things can happen, for example, a friend of mine found that sugar became bitter – he still can’t eat sweet things – while I who normally lives for lemons couldn’t stomach lemon juice in my food or lemon wedges in my drinks, but the zest was fine. To make water more drinkable, I found chilling it helped, especially with big sprigs of mint in it, or I’d stir in tart flavors like pomegranate molasses. I got into granitas (shaved ices) too at this time. They tasted good and their iciness soothed my mouth. Between the spicy food and the fruity ices, I gradually got into a rhythm of eating that worked for me and managed to keep myself well fed, happy and hydrated. It’s not impossible. You will find your own tricks to get through too.