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Learning About Taste Changes During Cancer Treatment

How can cancer treatments affect how foods taste?

During chemotherapy or radiation treatment, you may have a bitter, metallic, or salty taste in your mouth. Or you may lose your sense of taste.

Taste changes don't affect everyone who has cancer treatments. And when they do happen, they usually go away after treatment is over.

You may also have problems with the smell of food. The smells from perfumes and soaps may bother you too.

If you have trouble tasting or smelling food, then eating might be harder for you. But eating enough can help you keep your strength up.

How can you get enough calories when food doesn't taste or smell very good to you?

There are some things you can do to help you feel like eating when you are having cancer treatments.

  • Keep your mouth clean.

    Brush your teeth, and rinse your mouth.

  • Use a mouth rinse made with baking soda.

    Stir together 1 tsp (5 mL of salt, 1 tsp (5 mL) of baking soda, and 4 cups (1 L) of water. Use a small amount to rinse your mouth 4 to 6 times each day. Spit out the rinse. Don't swallow it.

  • Try new or bland foods.

    Sometimes it's easier to eat foods that you're not used to. And bland foods may be easier to tolerate if foods don't taste the way they usually do.

  • Try using plastic utensils if food tastes metallic.

    Using plastic forks, knives, and spoons can help if metal utensils leave a metallic taste in your mouth.

  • Try eating smaller amounts of foods more often during the day.

    It may help to eat in the mornings or at times of the day when you feel better.

  • Use mints or lemon if your mouth isn't sore.

    Suck on mints (sugar free) or lemon-flavoured candies, or add lemon to your food. This can help freshen up your mouth. If your mouth is sore, try soft, frozen fruits.

  • Try cool or cold foods.

    Foods that are served cool, cold, or refrigerated have less taste and aroma. They often are easier to eat.

  • Avoid the smell of food cooking.

    Ask someone else to cook for you in another room. Wait a short time before you eat so some of the smells go away. If the smell of foods like onions, cabbage, broccoli, or fish bothers you, try to avoid them, at least for a while.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

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