Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work
MARCH 21, 2018
What to eat while on chemo? When beginning treatment, this is something we all think about. Even though there have been huge improvements in nausea control, and many/most people never actually vomit, it is still true that our tastes change and many of us get quirky re our diets. The only consistent reminders from providers are to stay hydrated/drink lots of water and to eat enough protein to help you body replace healthy cells, This gives us lots of latitude, and we all experiment and gradually figure out what works.
There are lots of books and articles that suggest various healthy cancer-fighting food, but there is no data to support any claims that any foods actually battle cancer cells. Most of us are already well informed about healthy diets and know that it is better for us to eat whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, less red meat and processed food. I have known some people who start out totally energized about diet changes and supports during chemo, but the motivation to spend several hours juicing or preparing special diets tends to wane. We are left with what goes down and what our personal comfort foods are. For me, the comfort food part meant a lot of tomato soup and egg salad--although I know that sounds pretty awful to many others.
A woman in one of my groups recently raised this question on behalf of a friend in Slovakia. She was flooded with suggestions, and these may be helpful to you, too. Here are the responses from others in her group:
When I had chemo I was always hungry! (I was taking steroids for a reaction) This was the opposite of what I expected. I gained 10-15 pounds...
everything tasted good to me, especially a chicken soup made by a friend.
Nothing was more delicious for me than homemade chicken soup.
My thoughtful cousin cooked up a large batch and froze it in individual servings.
I know they have chickens in Slovakia!
Watermelon was really good at removing that horrible taste I had in my mouth but don’t know if that’s available now in Slovakia
During chemo I was big on soup. It was satisfying and comforting.
I had no specific cravings but the smell of meat cooking gave me dry heaves & the thought of anything sweet (cake, cookies) made me nauseas. Lost 40 pounds! Everyone is different. Eat anything you like, as much as you want.
When I had chemo there were certain smells and tastes that instantly made me more nauseous. My son used a fruity fragranced shampoo every morning, and I had to ask him to stop using it because there was something about the fragrance that was making me sick. My daughter cooked chicken parmesan one night and from upstairs in the bedroom the smell of the tomato sauce coming from the kitchen downstairs was intolerable. I shut my bedroom door, but I could still smell it—yuck. To this day the smell turns me off. My comfort food was ice cream. Plain old vanilla ice cream tasted so good and was so satisfying. I ate lots of vanilla ice cream. One day I craved a turkey sandwich and was able to eat it and tolerate ate it. Turkey sandwich cravings lasted one day and then the smell turned me off. Most of the time I felt nauseous and had that awful chemical taste in my mouth. We called it chemo mouth and chemo smells. I gained 10 lbs when I was on chemo in spite of being nauseous all the time. I was given medication for the nausea—it’s funny because I can’t remember the name of the medication. It didn’t do anything to help the nausea. I asked my oncology fellow if there was anything medication I could try (I knew there was because a fried who had chemo at another hospital took a different anti nausea medication and she was fine). His answer was a resounding no. As an aside, he had no personality. He simply couldn’t relate to my personality. He was a jerk. Before my last chemo treatment I asked my wonderful oncologist about taking a different anti nausea medication and he said sure, no problem. Let’s try Zofran. I took Zofran as direction and miraculously I had no nausea. Why didn’t I speak up sooner? Tell your friend to speak up and ask for remedies for nausea. Ask her doctors, nurses—anyone who might know of something that would make me feel like eating. I tried Ginger Tea that someone had recommended, but it made me more nauseous. Well, Ice cream worked for me and I ate lots of it and drank lots of water to keep myself hydrated. I continue gaining weight. In the end I had gained 30 lbs! Then when I was on Tamoxifen, I began going to weight watchers to try to lose the weight. It took 2 years to lose 30 lbs. I practically starved myself and exercised vigorously every day at the gym. Two years! There were times when my weight would be up .4 tenths of a pound—after a week dieting, eating bird sized food portions and all that exercise. I remember I would get into my car after the “weigh in” and cry all the way home. I’m sorry I’ve rambled on about myself. It’s been a while since I shared this story. I’m sorry for rambling. But, in the end everything was ok because I’m still alive and it’s been over 20 years since I had chemo for breast cancer. I’ve never had a recurrence—I don’t regret having chosen the chemo treatment I was given even though there were other options. The women in Hester’s support group at that time were wonderful and supportive and we always laughed. A few of us decided to get dressed up for our chemo treatments. We wore makeup and lipstick, a beautiful head scarf, big. dangly earrings and called ourselves chemo chic. We had a chemo chic attitude, in spite of feeling like crap.
My recommendations for your friend in Latvia are to eat whatever appeals to her. For me it was ice cream. Definitely not the best food choice, but it tasted so good and made me feel better. My other recommendation is for her to do whatever she can to make herself feel better. If it’s wearing make up, beautiful head scarves, different wigs (I had 2—different styles). Anything that makes her feel better about herself when she looks in the mirror and goes out in public is a good thing. If she sees a pair of shoes or a pocketbook that she likes, she should buy it and wear it. If she buys herself a few new outfits and it makes her feel better about herself—do it. I don’t mean to marginalize how awful it feels when going through chemo. It definitely sucks! But attitude is really important. I’m sure I”m not telling you all anything you don’t already know. I guess I just needed to share and try to help a “sister” do whatever it takes to get through the diagnosis and treatments.
Wow! This has touched a chord! Such a variety of experience! My list of foods I could tolerate was zany (ginger lemon tea, soft scrambled eggs, grits and bacon, and popsicles) and counterintuitive (tuna salad from the infusion suite volunteers and a particular kale salad from Guido’s in Lenox).
I developed deep aversions to chicken noodle soup and to the smells of salmon and asparagus cooking, which sadly persist to this day. I purposely did not try to eat salmon or asparagus during treatment because I did not want to risk a bad experience that would put me off them. But it happened anyway. Searching now for a Jedi mind trick to break the habit of feeling nauseated when I see or smell them.
And the smell of sriracha, which I have never actually eaten, brings that metallic taste right back into my mouth. How weird.
So I agree that your friend should eat whatever she can and not eat what doesn’t sit well with her. Smells are as powerful as tastes. It is so random and individual. I hope she will be well.