Patient Blogs | Ovarian Cancer
When Food Tastes Like Dirt: My Diet During and After Chemo
photo of woman looking in refrigerator

If you had to lose one of your senses, which would you choose? For me, sight and hearing are highest on the must-keep list. Touch too. Dealing with neuropathy (which affects the sense of touch) can make everyday tasks, like typing and tying shoelaces, very difficult. So that leaves smell and taste. Smell can save me from things like fires, and I’d rather smell sour milk than taste it. Therefore, my choice is taste -- I’d give that up.

And I did -- while fighting ovarian cancer with chemo.

Eating at Diagnosis

I woke up in a hospital bed to hear the words that changed my life forever: “It’s ovarian cancer.” Eating was the furthest thing from my mind, and that’s saying a lot for me, because I love to eat. Under stress, I’ve been known to eat a whole pint of ice cream right out of the container. But after those words, ice-cold fear filled my stomach with acid, pain from surgery to remove all my internal girlie parts made me nauseated, and daily calls from my on-the-ball nurse to see if I was pooping made my mother force prunes on me. I absolutely didn’t feel like eating, which is probably pretty normal, considering the Tilt-A-Whirl that my life had become.

However, as those who loved me pointed out, I needed to heal as much as I could before starting chemotherapy. Healthy food and water would help. So, I sipped and nibbled. Whatever the neighbors brought, or my husband made, or sometimes just dessert, because dammit, I had cancer.

I also ate prunes.

Eating During Treatment

Taste buds are relatively fast-growing cells. They live and die in a normal cycle about every 10 to 14 days. Many cancer cells are also fast-growing, which signals the chemotherapy agents to kill them. Taste buds become collateral damage in the fight.

A couple days after my first dose of chemo, I noticed that things tasted “off.” Within the week, many of my tastebuds had perished. This made me start eating EVERYTHING in an effort to see what I could still taste. I ate an Italian sub because I could sort of taste the salami. Then I ate movie theater popcorn because I could sense the salt. Ugh! I was definitely nauseated after filling my stomach with questionable things. I don’t recommend that.

Chocolate foods, like cake and brownies, felt a bit like they “burned” my tongue, and also had no chocolate flavor. Vanilla wet things like pudding and moistened pancakes still registered. When a friend brought over a shepherd’s pie, I could taste some of the mild spices and creamy cheese filling. But a lot of stuff tasted like cardboard that burned my sore tongue.

I’m the baker in my family, and over the holidays I still made lots of cookies (trying to hold onto normal things when life was absolutely not normal). But when I bit into one of my famous Oreo balls, I started to cry. It tasted like dirt.

Crazy as it sounds, on my “yuck” days (which ran on days 3-6 after treatment), I would sit with all my cookbooks and recipes, paging through them, trying to find things, anything, that looked good to me. Nothing really did. The medicines kept me from feeling nausea, but I just wasn’t hungry.

I developed sores throughout my mouth and throat from the chemo. (This doesn’t happen to everyone.) Some days, I could hardly open my mouth because the cracked corners would bleed and hurt. And the nerves in my teeth were painful from the neurotoxin I was taking. So, I ate oatmeal. A lot. I could sort of taste brown sugar, so that was the closest to yummy I could find.

I remember going to an Italian restaurant with friends.

“May I take your order?” the waiter asked.

“What’s your softest dish?” I asked.

Total confusion pinched his face.

“I’m on chemo and my mouth hurts. I need soft noodles or something.”

“Ummm … lasagna probably.”

“I’ll take it.”

Yep. No pizza for me. No apples either because they hurt to bite, and I couldn’t taste them anyway. I would look longingly at a perfect Honeycrisp like that cursed pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean (Barbossa) and wish I could just crunch into a juicy apple again. Oh, the things I took for granted before!

Tips and Tricks When Living with Zombie Tastebuds

These are things that worked for me:

  1. If metal things taste tinny, use plasticware instead of silverware.
  2. Suck on hard candy if you get a nasty taste in your mouth when you’re getting an infusion.
  3. Find soft foods that don’t hurt your mouth -- oatmeal, noodles, watermelon, smoothies.
  4. Avoid high-acid foods if you have sores or mouth irritation.
  5. Keep your mouth moist with gentle rinses, lip moisturizer, and toothpaste made to combat dry mouth.
  6. If you must take a liquid medicine that tastes terrible (I could somehow still taste that!), drink it quickly and then run water over your tongue (to wash it off) or swish your mouth with water. I’m such a wimp when it comes to yucky tastes, and the altered tastebuds did not help.
  7. My tears were not salty. Well, they were, but I couldn’t taste the salt. For some reason, this made me very angry. “Take the salt from my tears, and it’s like I can’t even cry right.” So I cried in the shower where I wouldn’t have tasted my tears anyway. I took lots of showers, because the heat felt good, and I could cry there without my kids hearing me.
  8. If something “good for you” makes you gag (like prunes), don’t eat it. Find something else that’s healthy that does the same thing.
  9. Remember that you can ask to talk with a nutritionist at any time, during treatment or after treatment. A good nutritionist can help you find foods that might work better for you.

Eating After the Tastebuds Return

Cancer is a thief. One of the things it steals is your sense of self-control. Suddenly, with those three little words (It’s ovarian cancer), my life began spiraling out of control. I was getting poked and examined and scanned. Doctors were giving me medicines that made my body turn into something I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t do the things I had done before, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to do them again. I had a hard time driving and being there for my three kids. Every ache made me wonder what unknown thing was happening under my skin again. It was terrifying.

And then when I finished chemo, it was still terrifying, because I no longer had weekly appointments with my doctor. I felt like I was all on my own, but with a new body that didn’t completely work. I needed to take control of things again.

As my tastebuds returned, the yuck feeling went away, and my constant sore mouth/throat healed, I took control of what I ate. I went to Whole Foods grocery and bought all the green things and bright-colored fruits and vegetables. I put cinnamon on everything sweet because of its anti-inflammatory properties. (Turmeric is good for that too.) I juiced veggies and fruit to get more nutrients into me, although now I just make smoothies (need that fiber).

The Environmental Working Group puts out a yearly list of foods that contain a high amount of pesticide residue. These are the fruits and vegetables I try to buy organic (or I peel them). They call them the dirty dozen. Although, EWG goes on to say that vegetables and fruits are so healthy, that even eating commercially grown ones (not organic) is better than not eating them at all. I just make sure to really wash or peel the ones I can.

2021 Dirty Dozen

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale, collard, and mustard greens
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Peaches
  9. Pears
  10. Bell and hot peppers
  11. Celery
  12. Tomatoes

After chemo, my tastebuds returned to normal. I still sprinkle cinnamon on my oatmeal and chai tea lattes and try to buy organic when I can. I stay away from nitrates in meat and anything that doctors feel is unhealthy for anyone. Perhaps it’s because I’m 50 years old now or maybe because I had many months of chemo, but I immediately feel sluggish when I’m eating not-so-healthy food (with high sugar and fat). Then I eat a cucumber, and I feel so much better. Before, food didn’t affect me so quickly and so hard. I got a huge wake-up call with my cancer diagnosis, and I intend to keep eating healthier. However, I still do not eat prunes.



Photo Credit: AndreyPopov / iStock via Getty Images Plus

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Heather McCollum

Heather McCollum

Diagnosed since 2011

Heather McCollum is a 10-year survivor of ovarian cancer living near Raleigh, NC. When she isn't helping to educate women about this disease, she's busy raising her three kids, taking care of her rescued animals, and writing Scottish historical romance novels. She loves dragonflies, hot chai tea lattes, and supporting other cancer warriors as they maneuver through their own journeys.

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