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Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Treatment of Symptoms


See the NCI Web site for Eating Hints: Before, During, and After Cancer Treatment, which has recipes such as Lactose-Free Double Chocolate Pudding, Banana Milkshake, and Fruit and Cream. For a free copy of this booklet, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Taste Changes

Changes in how foods taste may be caused by radiation treatment, dental problems, mouth sores and infections, or some medicines. Many cancer patients who receive chemotherapy notice a bitter taste or other changes in their sense of taste. A sudden dislike for certain foods may occur. This can cause a loss of appetite, weight loss, and a decreased quality of life. Some or all of a normal sense of taste may return, but it may take up to a year after treatment ends. The following may help cancer patients who have taste changes:

  • Eat small meals and healthy snacks several times a day.
  • Eat meals when hungry rather than at set mealtimes.
  • Eat favorite foods and try new foods when feeling best.
  • Eat poultry, fish, eggs, and cheese instead of red meat.
  • Eat citrus fruits (oranges, tangerines, lemons, grapefruit) unless mouth sores are present.
  • Add spices and sauces to foods.
  • Eat meat with something sweet, such as cranberry sauce, jelly, or applesauce.
  • Find nonmeat, high-protein recipes in a vegetarian or Chinese cookbook.
  • Use sugar-free lemon drops, gum, or mints if there is a metallic or bitter taste in the mouth.
  • Rinse mouth with water before eating.
  • Eat with family and friends.
  • Have others prepare the meal.
  • Use plastic utensils if foods have a metal taste.

Taking zinc sulfate tablets during radiation therapy to the head and neck may help a normal sense of taste come back faster after treatment.

Dry Mouth

Dry mouth is often caused by radiation therapy to the head and neck and by certain medicines. Dry mouth may affect speech, taste, and the ability to swallow or to use dentures or braces. There is also an increased risk of cavities and gum disease because less saliva is made to wash the teeth and gums.

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