Cooking On Chemo

We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

After forty rounds of chemotherapy, I might not exactly be an expert on every aspect of treatment but I do have a few ideas about coping with side-effects. And one of the things I highly recommend is cooking. It may seem counter-intuitive, especially with chemo's reputation for causing nausea, constipation, changes in the way foods taste, and a host of similar issues. Yet these are exactly some of the reasons that working in the kitchen can be a successful method of moving through the nastiness and finding some joy in the process.

As cancer patients, one of the things that we are often told to focus on is maintaining a healthy weight. This means learning something about diet and nutrition, focusing on protein and balance in what we eat so that we can continue to build muscle mass and ensure that the fuel our healthy cells need is not being deprived. For many of us, however, it can be hard just to keep the blandest food down long enough to digest it. This is where experimentation comes in.

A New Hobby

Personally, I have experienced dramatic swings in terms of how things taste or how I might react to various smells. Some odors make me wretch, forcing an unwelcome gag reflex with just a whiff. And even my favorite foods have, at times, been inedible. Coming to this realization in the midst of a chemo cycle, when my brain and body were both fatigued and my level of focus was tricky to maintain, I realized that spending time in the kitchen had multiple benefits for getting through some of my worst days.

Importantly, it got me on my feet, or at least off the couch. (It is just fine to sit in a kitchen chair, after all; chopping does not require a standing position.) Preparing a meal does not have to be a quick process -- in fact, it benefits from being taken slow. And when food may be hard to get down (and keep down), little tastes along the way are useful for testing the process. What I like most about this, though, is that I find many small tasks that can hold my attention. Peeling garlic, for instance, requires the use of small motor skills that may seem difficult to master, but with patience and perseverance, offers no small amount of satisfaction. Especially if you like garlic. Or you find that you are craving it, like me.

In our house, my wife is the pesto master, but I get a lot of enjoyment out of the preparation process. Beyond the garlic peeling, I wash and prep the basil, carefully pinching off each leaf, and doing whatever small tasks I can to support the final meal. Just to get things ready and support the already difficult tasks of being a caregiver with a full-time job, I might spend the morning slowly getting all the ingredients ready so that she can work her magic in the evening. This way, too, even on an exceptionally difficult day, I can feel that I have been a part of the process, connected to the meal and connected to my family as something more than merely a bundle of side-effects.

Experimenting in the Kitchen

Beyond being of assistance in the kitchen, experimenting with flavors is especially useful for finding your "sweet spot" with what is not only merely edible but actually tastes good. Some days, a patient's body may react better to sweet or sour, to bitter or salty, maybe even to something more on the spicy side. It can be hard to tell in advance, but playing with flavor in the kitchen can help a patient to identify trends. For a long time, I found that bitter foods, flavors like dark chocolate and coffee, were much easier for me to tolerate than sweet foods. I began eating a lot of dark leafy greens, favored ground pepper over salt, and discovered that I still could enjoy eating. Sometimes it takes work and dedication to stay in the kitchen, but to keep our strength up and remind us that there are simple pleasures to be had at the same time, it can be hard to find a more perfect place to spend time and focus our energies.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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