Chemo, Food, and Taste

One of the tiresome things about chemo is what it does to flavours and aromas. For me almost every taste is really dialed down, and many things are flavourless. Texture is a big part of enjoying food, but when that’s all there is, meals can be pretty dull.  Fortunately my appetite is still good but I can easily understand how people who have lost appetite as well as taste could lose all interest in eating. It’s boring.

It’s good to remember that there’s always someone worse off than you. On my trips to hospital it can be obvious. It breaks my heart to see other patients so desperately ill, or young, or both.

Dad – 1941

My father was a WWII army glider pilot. In 1943, during preparations for the invasion of Sicily, his glider did what gliders do, and crashed. He lay in the wreckage in the North African desert through the night until rescue came. With a truly severe head injury, dad survived, losing an eye, and all sense of smell and taste. For the remaining sixty years of his life food had no flavour, flowers had no scent. And yet he told me he thought he’d been lucky – he didn’t get to go to Arnhem.

Another thing he told me was that he could still remember how food tasted, and when he ate, he imagined those flavours. I thought that must be a poor substitute and it was a rotten thing to endure. I remembered his words again yesterday over my evening meal – a lovely sausage casserole, with parsnips, butter beans, carrots, mash, the works. It made me appreciate that while I might have six months of this, he had a whole lifetime. I could cope, I would stop feeling sorry for myself.

While I knew what my casserole should taste like, it was barely there. So I tried imagining the flavours as he said he did. To my amazement, it worked. More than that, it was much less a recalled memory than actual flavours. Just by remembering I could taste so much better.

Flavours only exist as constructs in our minds, like colours and other sensations – all part of the ineffable qualia of experience. Maybe that’s how it works, a summoning up of memory and layering that onto actual experience.

Whatever the reason, it works, it helps, and life is a little better. Thanks, Dad!

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