Cooking For People Undergoing Chemo & Radiation

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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.