The ‘New Normal’ of Food After Chemo

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While my taste buds have returned to normal after cancer treatment, my desire to cook and eat has not.

cartoon drawing of blogger and gynecologic cancer survivor, Doris Helene White

Now that summer is here and I am nearly half a year beyond the rigors of chemotherapy, I wish I could tell you that life has resumed its previous, pre-diagnoses rhythms. Folks probably think I have returned to the schedule I had adopted since retiring: library browsing; sorority meetings; church activities; daily chats with my married daughter; texting about sports championships with my son; watching 1950s westerns on television with hubby. Most folks probably assume my life has returned to “normal” since I rang that bell.

Normalcy has a new definition for me. Daily rhythms bounce to a new beat. I nap spontaneously and find myself sometimes fatigued from walking through big box stores. This body that was biopsied in April 2022 is rather different in 2023 after radiation and chemotherapy. My new, short ‘fro frames a leaner face. I lost at least two dress sizes without any effort and, if I inhale deeply, I can see ribs not visible since high school. Can I just tell you that my feet finally feel less like clumsy, numbed blocks and more like the toes and soles I have known and loved? My balance is improving and I even occasionally brave high heels for church or social events.

Perhaps the most unexpected and disorienting facet of this new normal revolves around food. While enduring the lack of functional taste buds during chemo treatments last fall and winter, I prayed for the day when chemo cocktails were no longer needed, and I could resume meals and beverages with gusto. How grateful I knew I would be when water no longer tasted like bland carboard and when my stomach would shout for glee to welcome mashed potatoes, Tex-Mex dishes and yummy desserts again! I suspected my diabetic menu would be on hold for a short time while I pigged out on the savory goodies I had been missing for months.

My relationship to food has been disturbingly altered. While I am happy to report the taste buds are back to optimal functioning, my desire to eat has waned considerably. I can be hungry and eager for a meal, but when a full plate of food is placed before me, suddenly all cravings for food vanish. Poof! That bagel with cream cheese that I dreamed about all morning looks less appetizing when I start to bite into it. My stomach seems ready to rebel when I dive into those fish and chips hubby loves to order on Fridays. Salads and French fries prove less disastrous, but not by a large margin. Cold, carbonated beverages and hot tea seem to go down best. But who can survive on only diet drinks and Lipton with lemon slices?

But the issue goes way beyond the mere process of eating. After retiring and relocating to my Texas hometown, I took great pride in using favorite recipes passed down from my mother and sister to cook up mouth-watering creations. Lemon meringue pie, cornbread stuffing, baked macaroni and cheese, candied yams and 1-2-3-4 cake were just a few of my kitchen marvels. I would prep for days in anticipation of holiday gatherings, imagining sharing my cooking tips with future grandchildren. As most culinary historians agree, food is more than sustenance: food is culture, family and love served up on a plate.

These days, I have noticed a lack of excitement in reading through old cookbooks I have saved from my late mother. Where once I would mark pages to indicate recipes with delicious prospects, now I simply cringe at the thought of laboring so much to make a homemade pie crust or batch of yeast rolls. My lack of appetite has seemingly impacted my enthusiasm for the kitchen in general. The thought of toiling for days in that space to create family feasts for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter seems distressing to me now, coupled with a nagging suspicion I would not be able to enjoy the meal at all. I now wonder whether I should hand the coveted chef’s cap over to my married daughter, her “foodie” husband and my son as sous chef to let them become the keepers of the foodways passed to future generations. Yet, I am not ready to give up the opportunity to have my grandson participate in an American rite of passage: raving about Nana’s cooking!

At my next appointment with my oncologist, I will discuss this whole food issue. I am eating smaller, more frequent meals and trying to recognize what foods whet my appetite (pot roast and chicken tenders!). I will not pass the spatula over to my young’uns just yet. Nana is still queen in her kitchen, even if she only smiles, watching everybody else eat….

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