Cooking For People Undergoing Chemo & Radiation

| January 10, 2008 | 9 Comments
  • 9 Comments

Writing about food and baking and cooking means celebrating joy. But there are many whose bodies and minds fight for and with daily sustenance. Whether it be because of one’s class or struggles with weight, food can often be seen as the enemy. For an alcoholic whose disease is sparked into action by alcohol, becoming abstinent does not mean death, as it would be with food for a person with an eating disorder. Eating is something we all have to do to live, no matter what our circumstance.

A number of years ago I was met with the challenge of cooking for someone undergoing intensive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Chemotherapy is an umbrella name for hundreds, if not thousands, of combinations of specific cell-killing drugs used to attack various cancers. Every regimen, every specific “cocktail” of chemo, produces a whole slew of side-effects which affect people differently. Depending on any number of factors concerning the disease and its host, the specified chemotherapy treatment varies.

I did not consult books when I began cooking for my friend. I consulted her because I knew what she had liked before and we worked together to make food she could eat, had an appetite for, and could keep down. Because chemotherapy is poisonous and can kill the person before eradicating the disease, it is given in rounds with various lengths of time between them. It has a cumulative effect and one can only continue the regimen if one recovers enough in that time to do it again. Because the person undergoing treatment gets weaker as time goes on, and has no idea how the side-effects will progress, it’s important to go with the flow and try a number of different foods prepared all sorts of ways to see what hits the mark.

There were a few guidelines I was following. Strong flavors such as garlic and onions, and all spicy additions were nixed, although onions cooked down very slowly until dark and caramelized became sweet enough to eat. Salt and pepper were omitted completely over time. Acidity in all forms was also left out. That meant no fruit, vinegar, black tea or coffee. Although sometimes very ripe fruit could be handled in small doses. Sugary sweetness went out the door although not-so-sweet baked goods could be enjoyed if their textures were easy to chew and swallow. Ginger was helpful in all forms because it is has anti-nausea properties, as does watermelon, which was news to me. Also watermelon is mostly water so it helped with hydration.

If the person you are caring for is open to using marijuana to stimulate hunger or as an antiemetic (a drug that prevents or reduces nausea and vomiting), there are a number of ways a person can ingest it. Doctor prescribed, or otherwise. Locally there a few people licensed to use marijuana in foods they make for people with cancer. For obvious legal reasons I cannot link to them but I found one such person and he made baked goods and confections easily ingestible by my friend.

My friend and I joked that it was with very bland foods she took most pleasure. A number of times internal mouth sores flared up and were so painful they made it impossible for her to want to eat anything, although cool, bland, soft foods helped soothe her. I cooked rice, vegetables, chicken, tofu in almost no oils or seasonings. Soup was always around. I made custards and brought fruit still warm from the farmers’ markets. Plain yogurt garnished a lot of plates.

Cooking and baking for someone with a life-threatening illness changed my perspective about food and my profession forever. Until daily sustenance is unattainable or the enemy, it’s impossible to understand what powers a simple meal holds. It is an honor to care for someone dying in this way because food is life and to give a person in constant pain one small sensual pleasure is an immeasurable gift and grace.

More information can be found here at The Cancer Project.

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Category: health and nutrition

About the Author ()

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She's had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC. Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna's resume reads like the who's who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers' markets her muse. Currently "at large," Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.
  • Amy

    Shuna,

    I think it’s worth mentioning that Radiotherapy can have a very similar effect as well.

    I was reading your article nodding to myself, as we went through this with my father last year.

    Soups, poached eggs with toast and cups of sweet tea with milk were his staples. (Although there was the Best.Meal.Ever – Oysters Kilpatrick. I’ll never figure that one out.)

    Your article is very sensitive and caring. Thank you.

    Amy

  • charles

    My mother has had some experience with the challenge you describe when cooking for her friend’s husband who suffered from an agressive stomach cancer. She also found that soups featured heavily when planning a menu. Plain vegetable soup was a firm favourite.

    My friend’s mother who recently lost a 16 year battle with cancer found that foods that she consumed during courses of chemo could not be eaten again without making her feel nauseous. Strong foods were a definite no-no as the pallet became hyper sensitive and anything with a distinctive flavour tasted burnt or very bitter.

    I am heartened by your article that addresses an issue which affects so many but is not often discussed. Thank you.

  • Mags

    My father was recently diagnosed with leukemia. It’s in a very early stage, so treatment (chemo) is off the table until his symptoms change. I often wonder (and have anxiety attacks) about what side effects, if any, he will experience when he finally does undergo treatment.

    Your post is helpful to someone like me who wants to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Your commenter above is right – nobody ever really talks about the culinary needs of someone undergoing chemotherapy.
    My whole life, dad has cooked for us. He still does. His dishes are the standard by which I judge Filipino cuisine. I want to be able to give him at least one tiny moment of nourishing pleasure if and when treatment time comes.

    I think the goal of anyone giving care to a loved one who has cancer is to give him or her a pleasurable respite from the ravages of this disease, in any way you can. Thank you so much for this post.

  • Thy Tran

    Shuna – Thank you for writing about cooking and eating under difficult circumstances in such a simple, direct, useful and honest way.

  • JEP

    Thank you for sharing! Your post holds a special meaning for my own circumstances!

  • june2

    Macrobiotics was conceived as a cancer healing diet, I believe, and while the food is simple, it isn’t bland at all. And it is highly nutritious, of course.

    I’ve seen people transform their health with it over the course of a year.

  • shuna fish lydon

    Charles,

    Thank you for your insight as well. I had forgotten to mention that one of the side effects of the myriad of medications one is taking is that one’s taste buds change dramatically.

    A person cooking for someone undergoing treatment is oftentimes avoiding certain flavors because medications render those flavors as different than they are to a person not on those meds.

    And, yes, sometimes the lasting effect of cancer and it’s medicinal trials is that a person loses a taste for things they once loved, whether during treatment or before.

    Mags,

    You are welcome. A journey such as ours is difficult and few have a desire to share its woes.

    I wish for you bravery, honesty and patience. And the ability to ride the storm out.

    For me I know that the storm created incredible challenges that changed my life forever after.

    Thy,

    I thank you back to your thank you. What you have said about what I have written is why I set fingers to keyboard.

  • http://chowbella.us connie

    Shuna dear, you are what I admire in a professional. I came of cooking age in the early 70′s, was smitten and have never looked back. Most of us were”self taught”, which really means we absorbed every ounce and pound of experience from our own depths as well as those we chose to hang with in the close confines of the “line”. We really sucked it up! I am now 54, have been a chef/owner for 12 years, have raised a beautiful daughter and a restaurant resentful husband,(still asking if we can get away between Christmas and New years!)and have lived with the spectre of breast cancer upsetting the applecart to boot. Reading your blog of cooking for a true friend while undergoing treatment put me in a momentary catatonic state, while I underwent this barbaric episode of lumpectomy and radiation, I was desperately maintaining my business with very poor mgt personnel, indifferent, inept “chefs” and a just plain dreadful scenario. But I did it, that was 4 years ago, still not out of the woods,but all I can say is I wished someone had cooked for me…

  • Megan

    Thank you for your article. My mother-in-law was recently diagnosed with late stage stomach cancer at the all-too-young age of 51. She must undergo months of chemotherapy and then have surgery to remove her stomach entirely. Like you, my whole perspective on food has been shaken to the core. I am an avid home cook, but until now, I never really thought about how vital food is to our well being, or how deeply the inability to enjoy food can affect a person’s spirit. I would love to be able to use my love of cooking to bring even some small comfort to my mother-in-law during this impossible time. Thank you for sharing your experience and guidance.