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I Have Excellent Taste: Regaining a Sense After Treatment for Head and Neck Cancer

Never underestimate the power and inner strength of a hungry cancer patient.
PUBLISHED December 17, 2015
Dee lives in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, with her boyfriend and their cat. She works, cooks, knits, writes and is studying to be a CPA. She plans on living to be 106.
Baked polenta with smoked cheddar, parmesan and roasted butternut squash. Little, itty-bitty crab cakes with panko bread crumbs. Brie and grapes. Yams with pineapple and brown sugar. Roasted salmon with Moroccan spices and red onion jam.

That’s just a small sampling of all the wonderful food I’ve been eating over this holiday season. I’ve been enjoying myself. My waistline may not be very happy with me at the moment, but my taste buds certainly are having the time of their lives.

And why shouldn’t I? I’ve been through a lot. This time last year I had just begun my six-week treatment plan. Chemo and radiation on Mondays and then radiation for the next four days with two days off for good behavior. I had been warned many, many times that I would probably lose my sense of taste for a while and that it might not come back. And if it did, it may not be same ever again.

Wait a second here. Taste? I may not be able to taste anything? Again? Maybe ever? Not fair. One of the best things about being alive is eating. I love food. I love to read about it, shop for it, cook it and share it with loved ones. It’s a hobby that borders on obsession. I mean, it’s bad enough I have cancer and now you’re going to take food away from me?

They were right. It was only about a week into my treatment that I noticed my sense of taste diminishing and it happened quickly. One day I was enjoying a bowl of spicy red lentil and winter squash soup and two days later I could barely taste my coffee. A few days after that, it was entirely gone.

Son of a — really?

To add insult to injury, I was starting to lose quite a bit of weight. Not only could I not taste a thing, the inside of my mouth was all swollen from the radiation, so being able to eat anything at all was becoming a real challenge. Now it wasn’t a question of eating for pleasure; it came down to finding something (anything!) I could eat to get some nutrition into me. There was no way anyone was putting a feeding tube into me. That was not happening. Strangely enough, the one thing I could still taste was chocolate. Even though I had a pretty nasty case of mucositis, I could still swallow liquids. Salvation (and much needed calories) came in the form of a familiar looking yellow box. Carnation Instant Breakfast to the rescue.

I drank gallons of it. I made it with whole milk and half and half. I added huge scoops of vanilla ice cream to it. It was my breakfast, lunch and dinner on most days and I didn’t care. It tasted good, it was filling and strangely comforting for reasons I still can’t figure out. After losing 25 pounds, I was able to maintain my weight (give or take a pound or two) and my doctors stopped mentioning the words "feeding tube."

Ever so slowly and without me even noticing it, my taste started to creep back in. My mouth finally started to heal. One day, chilled to the bone, I made myself a mug of tea. I wasn’t expecting much of anything except a warming feeling but there it was. An ever-so-slight suggestion of tannins on my tongue. And a bit of sugar. I took another sip. I did my happy dance around the kitchen.

That’s why I’m spending my holidays enjoying anything and everything I possibly can. When the late Warren Zevon was in the final stages of his illness, he told David Letterman that he wanted to remind everyone to "enjoy every sandwich." That’s great advice for living, regardless of whether you’re a patient with cancer or not.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a piece of spanakopita in the refrigerator that’s calling my name. I’m going to savor every single bite of it.
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