Dash Away All: Eating With Cancer


We’ve all heard the jokes about hospital food.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, John Smelcer

Some things never change, no matter how much thoughtfulness goes into improvements. For me, during my weekly stays in the hospital for chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatment for lymphoma over six months, I came to detest the food they sent up to my room three times a day. Naturally it was healthy. But, it was bland. Even though I could order my meals the night before from the kitchen, ordering anything I wanted, I was always disappointed when the meals actually arrived. It got so bad that the moment I lifted the black plastic lid covering the plate I lost my appetite instantly. I’d almost yark (a synonym for “vomit” that I learned from Stephen King). The doctors warned me that I’d lose weight during treatment, but they wanted me to eat as much as I could to try to slow down the weight loss. My oncologist told me to eat all my favorites at home. “Just try to maintain your weight. That’s the most important thing,” he said.

At home I had no problem eating. I spiced things up just the way I liked them. I had hamburgers and donuts (I’ve never met a donut I didn’t like). I joked with my daughter that I should invent the donut burger: a big patty of burger, with or without cheese, between a glazed donut cut in half. But nothing they delivered to my room in the hospital ever seemed edible. I truly felt like throwing up on unveiling the plate.

Eventually, month after month, my wife and I devised new strategies for me to eat sufficiently. We started bringing a stockpile of nonperishable foods that I liked to eat. Friends would stop by to visit, bringing things I liked like a burger and fries from Five Guys, a pizza, KFC. Frequently, I went down to the lobby where the cafeteria was and ordered there. I marveled at how the same institution had a cafeteria with delicious food, but the hospital kitchen cooked such tasteless food. I imagine the reason is that the visitors and employees were paying customers. They could choose not to come back, while we patients were hostages. I hate to say it, but I even snuck out of the building occasionally and walked down the street to a nearby bakery and coffee house. I’m sure my doctors don’t want to hear that.

Eventually, though, we decided to sign up for Door Dash. My wife got me an account and put money in it. Now, I could order anything I wanted and have it delivered directly to my room on Oncology. Life was good. With all these new measures in place, my weight loss slowed down. I lost 22 pounds over the six months. The good news is I regained it all back within months of ringing the bell. I’m happy to say I’m back to my pre-cancer weight. My muscles have returned along with my hair. Like every other experience during my cancer ordeal, I wrote poetry. Here’s the one about my response to hospital food from my new book, Running from the Reaper: Poems from an Impatient Cancer Survivor, which is now available on amazon.com and elsewhere online.


Chemo makes most cancer patients nauseous.

Not so much for me. I yarked a couple times

after the first cycle, but never again.

What always brought me closest was the moment I’d lift the lid

that covered every meal ever brought to me in the hospital.

No matter what it was, I almost hurled just looking at it.

Early on, my nurses warned me that if I didn’t eat enough

the doctors might order feeding tubes.

So that I wouldn’t have tubes shoved down my gullet,

I started to throw the food away into a garbage bag, tie it off,

and dump it in another garbage can somewhere else in the building.

No one was ever the wiser.

But I didn’t starve. At first, I brought my own food.

Eventually, I got the Door Dash app, which I could use to order food

from my favorite restaurants and have it delivered.


Sometimes, it’s the little things that keep you going.

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