12 March 2020
Written by Di Grennan, McGrath Foundation breast care nurse

Although the purpose of chemotherapy is to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells, it can also cause damage to some of the healthy cells too, including your tastebuds. This damage, along with other common side effects of treatment, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea , constipation and a sore mouth, can affect your taste experience and food enjoyment, and lead to a less than nutritious diet. Eating well is important for anyone going through cancer therapy as it helps with the healing process and boosts energy levels and the immune system. Everyone’s experience will be different but if you notice a negative impact on your eating habits, let your treating team know and ask for a referral to a dietician who can work with you on an eating plan. Think about keeping a food diary noting the time of day, the stage of your treatment cycle and what foods/drinks affected you and how, as this will be useful in helping your treating team identify the causes and assist with management. Here are some general tips to consider:

• Good mouth care is very important during treatment. Clean your teeth with a soft toothbrush after each meal and rinse your mouth with salt water or the mouthwash suggested by your treating team, which can help with any unpleasant aftertaste.

• Drink lots of water (add a slice of lemon or try flavoured mineral water) and keep your mouth moist. If dry mouth is a problem, artificial liquid salivia is available for purchase. You can also try sucking on ice cubes, mints, or lemon or lemon barley candy throughout the day.

• Try different foods and drinks as you may not enjoy your usual favourites and may even like foods that you didn’t like before!

• Look for alternatives in your diet if enjoyment becomes a problem. If you no longer enjoy meat products, which are a good source of protein, then try other protein sources such as cheese, eggs, nuts, dairy foods, lentils, or baked beans.

• Consider eating smaller meals more often; perhaps six meals a day, instead of four. Keep nutritious snacks on hand and eat them when you are feeling least nauseous. Milkshakes, protein shakes and other nutritious drinks may also be a good alternatives for you.

• Food smells can often change, become stronger or disappear altogether, which will make it harder to taste what you are eating and can affect enjoyment. You can choose plainer foods, and try and avoid anything with a strong odour. Perhaps ask family or friends to cook a meal for you so that you are not exposed to the cooking smells.