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Winning foods while fighting cancer, battling taste buds

Book helps find appetizing foods for during chemo

Ten Speed Press

Cancer is an adventure that I didn't volunteer for.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February and have just completed the difficult chemotherapy. Chemotherapy complicated everything. I was told that my taste buds would change, that a metallic taste would make the common things I eat and drink impossible.

But it was hard to imagine just how it would dictate my eating habits.

I knew I wouldn't feel up to grocery shopping and cooking after I started my regimen. I prepared meals ahead of time and froze them in small, convenient packages. A good idea, but as soon as I started chemo, nothing I had prepared tasted good, including spicy Indian food I thought would cover up the metallic taste.

Friends came to the rescue. One made matzo ball chicken soup. Another researched the types of food that works for people undergoing chemotherapy. She brought over a care package of almond butter, red lentils, quinoa, brown rice, ginger snaps and crackers.

"Food is medicine when going through treatment," says Alison Johnson, a registered dietitian at Lutheran Hospital. "When your nutrition is adequate through treatment, you have the best possible outcomes."

Creating a strategy

The top problems for chemotherapy are lack of appetite, fatigue, taste changes, nausea and vomiting, and not wanting to get up and make something to eat, says Johnson, who helps cancer patients make nutritional food choices that help in the fight against cancer. Patients should have easy snacks and pre-made items available.

A good eating strategy, she says, "is small frequent meals to keep something in the stomach to help prevent nausea. Meals are better tolerated when they are smaller and more frequent."

I found myself eating five times a day. When it was time to eat, I had to eat right away. I tried to make snacks and meals as healthy as possible because I sometimes didn't have much appetite. A friend kept me supplied with Anytime Bars, which have pecans, almonds, rolled oats, dates, apricots and just enough maple syrup to make it sweet.

The recipe was from "The Cancer Fighting Kitchen Cookbook" by Rebecca Katz. Katz is the executive chef for The Center for Mind-Body Medicine's Food As Medicine and Cancer Guides Professional Training Programs. Katz's experience working with cancer patients comes through in her cookbook, which combines food and science into delicious recipes.

Finding what works

What worked as something to eat during one round of chemotherapy often didn't work during the next. Anything with tomato sauce made me sick. I substituted the tomato paste with mayonnaise on pizzas. Food could be seasoned but not spicy.

"Chemo patients should also keep an open mind and try a variety of options to see what will work best," Johnson says. "One week, it might be the food they go to, and the next, they might not even be able to look at it."

One of the recipes from Katz's cookbook that always tasted good was Kale with Sweet Potatoes and Pecans. The added ginger, cinnamon and maple syrup made it seem more like a dessert than a vegetable

Johnson also recommends that patients should have the mindset that "I'm not really hungry, but it has been two hours, so I should probably grab something small. That hunger feeling isn't always going to be there, but to know it's important to still eat.

"Make every bit count when you are having a bad day," she says. Use milk in place of water in a recipe. Add dry milk powder to recipes that have a liquid. Find a way to increase the calories and protein in every bite.

The Easy Eggs in a Cup in Katz's cookbook were so easy to make that I made them often. The eggs are baked with spinach, garlic, feta cheese and nutmeg. This gave me the protein I needed, along with a vegetable.

I also really liked the Middle Eastern Chickpea Burgers. This recipe calls for turmeric, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and garlic. These spices worked well with my impaired taste buds. I made up several patties and froze them so they were ready to eat whenever I wanted.

Getting fluids

I was instructed in chemotherapy class to drink two to three quarts of fluids a day. According to Johnson, drinking fluids helps flush the drugs through the body and protect the kidneys from damage because of toxicity. I found this challenging. The metallic taste in my mouth made drinking water impossible. Adding lemon juice helped make the water easier to drink.

Along with the lemon juice, Johnson recommends adding cucumber or strawberry for flavor if a person has mouth sores. She suggests experimenting with mixing juices or drinking broth. Katz's cookbook has a magic mineral broth recipe made with a variety of vegetables that adds magnesium, potassium and sodium back into the body. A friend made this for me, and not only did it taste good, but it was a healthy beverage alternative.

Sometimes feeling nauseated kept me from wanting to drink, so ginger ale helped. I made ginger ale from a recipe in Katz's cookbook as an alternative to the ginger ale at the store, which has a lot of high-fructose corn syrup. There is also a chapter dedicated to recipes for tonics and elixirs that will give patients ideas if they are having trouble finding something to drink.