What changes could I experience?

The following taste and smell changes are commonly experienced during cancer treatment:

The sense of taste

  • You might have problems identifying certain tastes during treatment, and for some people this may continue for some time after treatment.
  • You might describe food as “not tasting like it used to”. For example, if you have trouble tasting salty, savoury or sour foods, then sweet and bitter tastes might be overpowering.
  • It is common for many people to find bitter foods (e.g. tea, coffee, beer, wine) or sweet foods (e.g. chocolate, sweetened breakfast cereals) unappealing during treatment.
  • Many people start to prefer savoury foods over sweet foods, even if they usually have a sweet tooth.

The sense of smell

  • You may find it difficult to smell things at all, and this, in turn, will make it harder to taste.
  • You might become very sensitive to smells that now seem stronger or different, or may make you feel nauseated.
  • Some people may smell things when there is no odour present.

The sense of touch

  • If your sense of touch becomes highly sensitive, chilli or peppermints might feel too hot; fizzy drinks, including sparkling mineral water, might feel too abrasive; or you might not be able to tolerate the feeling or taste of very cold things, like cold drinks or ice-cream.
  • If your sensitivity is reduced, you might find yourself adding lots of chilli or spice to food.

Changes in appetite or food preferences

Your motivation to eat or drink might change during cancer treatment. You may not be able to tolerate food you previously liked, or you might start to like foods you previously didn’t enjoy. Because cancer treatment can be stressful or associated with unpleasant feelings, such as nausea, certain foods or drinks can become associated with negative feelings. For example, if you associate the smell of pumpkin soup at the hospital with feelings of nausea, you might find it difficult to enjoy pumpkin soup again.

You may lose interest in food in general and find it hard to eat as much as you should. On the other hand, you might find you are craving particular types of food or are hungrier than usual.

The importance of a healthy diet

Eating well is important for anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Good nutrition helps the body cope with treatment and the healing process, and boosts energy levels and the immune system.

Changes in your enjoyment of food may lead you to choose less healthy food and drink options. You might find it difficult to follow your regular diet or the eating plan suggested by your treatment team.

If this occurs, let your treatment team know and ask for a referral to a dietitian, who can discuss strategies to make your eating plan easier to follow.


This information was last reviewed in February 2015
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