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Comfort Food During Chemo

By Heather Millar

drinking

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been cooking for an old family friend and neighbor who has metastatic lung cancer. I can’t remember when he and his partner, both in their mid-80s, weren’t part of our lives. Yet they’re also private. They’re not the kind of guys who are going to tell you their greatest fears. They don’t gossip. They don’t complain.

I know that he just started what I think is his third chemo regimen. I hate the idea that he may spend the rest of his life either going through chemo or waiting for the next round of poisons to begin. Normally, I’m the sort who just asks questions, but something keeps me from prying into the details. I can sense that it wouldn’t be completely welcome: they would probably answer, but I’m not sure they would be comfortable doing so.

Yet I can tell things are getting tougher. Now, when the ill partner does his daily walk with the dog, his partner follows them in their vintage 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, just in case he feels too weak to finish his usual route. When I brought over a care package about a week ago, the healthy partner said the patient hadn’t eaten in a day or two. That says something, since the one who has lung cancer was once an amazing cook.

The next day, on our front stoop, I found a paper bag with emptied, clean plastic containers inside. There was a note: “Amazing!” the healthy partner had written. “He said he wasn’t hungry UNTIL he tasted your meatloaf and mashed potatoes. He ate more than he has in a week!”  I’d used the recipe from Cooks Illustrated, a resource that can make you look like a genius even with basics like meatloaf or mac-and-cheese.

It felt so good to help this old friend—the man who’d first exposed me to gourmet cooking—enjoy a meal. When my father was dying of lung cancer, I think he just gave up when he realized that he couldn’t eat any longer. My Dad always cooked and ate with gusto, giving that up was just the last straw for him.

So I’ve made it kind of a private challenge to try to tempt this family friend with various dishes. Comfort food seems to be winning out: Homemade applesauce (easy: peel, core and coarsely cut four apples, add 1 tsp cinnamon, ¼  to ½ cup sugar, cup of water, microwave for 10 minutes, mash, cool), beef stew, berry muffins, fried chicken and biscuits—all these have inspired enthusiastic notes.

Obviously, if you’re overcome with nausea from cancer treatment, the last thing you want to do is eat. If everything you put in your mouth tastes metallic, even comfort food doesn’t hold much appeal. If you’re struggling with mouth sores so bad that they make breathing painful, who wants to eat?

But many cancer patients find at least a few foods they can enjoy: When I was in active treatment, I loved spicy things. I usually had a falafel sandwich or spicy Asian noodles during my chemo infusions. (I found I could eat during chemo, when all the steroids and nausea meds were in full force; just not after chemo.) One of my mother’s caregivers had breast cancer last year, and I think she survived almost entirely on potato chips, the salt covered up the metal taste that ruined most foods for her. Even after his cancer had metastasized to his stomach and he really couldn’t eat, my Dad loved Welch’s grape juice in all its purple, stain-y glory.

Eating is such a basic pleasure, such a basic need. Eating well can actually help you marshal the strength to get through treatment. You can find pleasure in a good meal when you’re too weak to do anything else. It’s worth fighting to enjoy food, whatever the challenges. You can find some tips for healthy eating during chemo on WebMD, and also here, here, and here.

Do you have favorite treats or recipes that you enjoyed during cancer treatment? Share them here!

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