Eating and mouth problems
Cancer and its treatment can change the way your salivary glands work and affect your sense of taste, texture and smell. Some foods may have less taste than before and others may have a salty, bitter or metallic taste. Your mouth may be more sensitive to food and drinks that are cold, hot, spicy, or fizzy. These changes can affect your enjoyment of food.
• If you find food tastes bland, experiment with different foods and flavours such as fresh herbs, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, gravies, spices, and relishes.
• If you have lost your taste for meat, try marinating it in soy sauce, honey, ginger, or fruit juice before cooking.
• Try alternatives to meat such as lentils, legumes, nuts, eggs, and cheese.
• If food is too salty, avoid adding salt when cooking.
• If food tastes too sweet, try foods with less sugar such as porridge, and Weetbix.
• Try refreshing, moist foods such as melons and berries.
• If you experience a metallic taste try using plastic or non-metal utensils.
Here are some ways to help reduce off-putting food smells.
• Choose plain foods with low smell levels.
• Ask for help with meal preparation, or try pre-prepared or easy meal options.
• Use an extractor fan, cover pots when cooking, open doors and windows, or cook outdoors such as on a BBQ.
• Serve food at room temperature rather than when the food is hot or very cold.
Before you start treatment you should have a dental check-up. This is to make sure no infection from your mouth will complicate your cancer treatment. Treatment to your mouth and throat, a lack of saliva (dry mouth), and the use of extra snacks and drinks can affect your oral health. Take extra care of your teeth and reduce the risks of infection and dental problems by following these steps.
• Use a soft toothbrush to clean your teeth, tongue and gums each day.
• Avoid alcohol, smoking and over-the-counter mouthwashes which can dry and irritate your mouth.
• Make sure dentures are cleaned and sterilised regularly to avoid infection.
• Regularly use a gentle mouthwash, such as one made using the recipe below.
• Avoid sugary snacks, soft drinks and acidic fruit juices.
Some treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation to the head and neck, can affect the salivary glands causing a lack of saliva, or sometimes a thick saliva or mucous, making eating difficult. A dry mouth can occur due to dehydration or due to some medication. A dry mouth and lack of saliva significantly increase the risk of infections in your mouth and
throat. Here are some things that can help.
• Moisten food with gravy, sauces, custard, cream, milk, butter, margarine, oil or dressings.
• Use tender moist foods such as soups, casseroles, and minced or pureed meals.
• Sip fluids throughout the day such as water, weak or fruit tea, milk, or supplements (if needed).
• Suck ice chips and chew sugar-free chewing gum.
• Dip biscuits in hot drinks to soften them.
• Avoid coffee, alcohol, smoking, and dry, salty, spicy, and very hot or cold foods.
• Use artificial saliva, gels or an oil mouth spray (do not use before your radiation treatment).
• Apply lip balm to prevent lips drying or cracking.
• If you have long-term issues with dry mouth after cancer treatment, you will need to talk with your treatment team for more specific advice.
Mouth sores, ulcers (mucositis), infections, and swallowing difficulties (dysphagia) can occur due to treatment for your cancer. Poor teeth and ill-fitting dentures can also cause pain, making chewing and swallowing difficulties worse.
If you need to adjust the texture of your food try soft, moist, pureed or minced food. If you are having ongoing mouth or swallowing issues, or you are losing weight, you may need a referral to a dietitian or speech language therapist.
Tenderness in the mouth and throat can make it difficult to eat, but the following suggestions may help.
• Use pain relief as prescribed.
• Eat soft, moist, minced and puréed foods, which are easy to eat.
• Eat small, regular meals and snacks throughout the day.
• Use a gentle mouthwash regularly.
• Keep your mouth moist by sipping fluids during the day.
• Drink through a straw to help avoid sore areas in your mouth.
• Try drinks such as milk, milkshakes and supplement drinks to get extra calories and protein.
• Avoid alcohol and smoking.
• Avoid spicy, very hot or cold, salty, and acidic food such as kiwifruit, citrus fruit and tomatoes.