One of the nasty side effects of chemotherapy is the metallic taste you get in your mouth.
Everyone is encouraging you to eat, because most likely you have lost weight, but eating is the last thing you want to do.
Chemotherapy destroys fast-growing cells — most importantly cancer cells, but also those on your tongue, removing the top outer layer of skin where the flavor-sensitive cells live. It can also lead to mouth sores and pain down the esophagus so severe that swallowing can be extremely difficult.
My mouth sores were so severe during in-hospital chemotherapy for leukemia that I needed a feeding tube. When they removed the feeding tube, there was some confusion about what I was supposed to try eating. One specialist had a plate of mashed potatoes sent in. Another came in and whisked it away, saying "She can't have that!" and ordered a liquid diet.
I was thankful for another doctor who said, "You will eat again." It almost hadn’t occurred to me. So remember, if you are having this problem, it may feel permanent, but it's not.
The side effects of radiation, meanwhile, depend on the place of the body where there is a tumor. Radiation for cancer of the tongue, voice box, tonsils, salivary gland, nose, and throat can lead to sore mouth, trouble swallowing, change in or loss of taste, sore throat, dry mouth and thick saliva. Radiation for lung cancer, esophageal cancer and breast cancer can also lead to trouble swallowing and heartburn.
While drugs for controlling nausea and diarrhea have greatly improved, chemotherapy and radiation can cause both of these side effects.
Already thin at 5-foot-9, I lost about 20 pounds and went down to somewhere between 115 and 120. One of the most helpful food offerings that I got in the hospital was a protein shake made with vanilla ice cream, delivered with every meal. At home, this would be a good thing to make too.
I found that although plain water tasted metallic, a little lemon made it more palatable. After bone marrow transplants, patients must avoid fresh fruit and vegetables, due to fear that bacterial infections could severely damage fragile immune systems. My mother and I made a fruit compote (we called it fruit mush) that was easier to eat anyway. Plain applesauce also went down easily.
The American Cancer Society offers these other tips:
- Eat small meals every two or three hours rather than eating three large meals.
- Try eating most of your food during the time of day when you are best able to eat. Many people find that breakfast time is best.
- Let your healthcare team know if eating is a problem. Ask a dietitian to give you more tips to help with eating.
- Eat foods and drink beverages that are easy on the stomach or made you feel better when you had the flu or morning sickness. These are often things like ginger ale, bland foods, sour candy, and dry crackers or toast.
- Do not force yourself to eat when you feel nauseated.
- Limit your fluid intake during meals.
- Eat food cold or at room temperature.
- Have someone else make the meals if you have nausea.
- Get fresh air with a fan or open window.
- Limit sounds, sights, and smells that cause nausea and vomiting.
And remember, this too shall pass.
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