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- Managing side effects
- Taste and smell changes
- How does cancer and treatment affect taste, smell and touch?
How does cancer and treatment affect taste, smell and touch?
You may notice changes to your senses before, during or after treatment. The cancer can affect your senses, causing changes before treatment begins. Treatment can also affect the senses and damage nerves that send signals to the brain, causing changes during and after treatment.
How you feel, when you eat or where you eat (such as in hospital) can also affect how you feel about the food you are eating. The actual taste or smell of food doesn’t change, but you may find that food you usually like may not taste the same due to a change in your environment.
How treatments affect the senses
Chemotherapy – kills or slows the growth of cancer cells but may also damage healthy cells such as tastebuds. It can also affect nerve endings, changing the way you feel hot and cold foods in your mouth.
Radiation therapy – Radiation to the head or neck area can damage tastebuds and salivary glands. This damage can change the way you taste, smell or feel food.
Surgery – Surgery to the mouth and nose area may affect parts of the tongue, nose or salivary glands, changing the way you taste, smell or feel food.
Mouth health and cancer treatment
Dry mouth – Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery may also reduce the amount of saliva your body produces and make your mouth dry. As saliva helps tastebuds to recognise flavours, a dry mouth may affect your sense of taste. This is known as xerostomia.
Having a dry mouth over a long period of time can also result in mouth infections or tooth decay, which can cause further problems with taste, smell or feeling. It is important to see your dentist regularly to help monitor the health of your mouth and teeth.
Mucositis – Some treatments may also cause mucositis, which damages the cells that line your mouth and gut. This can cause mouth ulcers that may increase your sensitivity to hot, cold, salty, spicy or acidic foods and drinks.
If you have dry mouth or mucositis, talk to your treatment team.
For more on this, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or see our general section on Mouth health and cancer treatment.
Emma McKie, Clinical Dietitian, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Cecilia Barling, Consumer; Dawn Bedwell 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Gillian Blanchard, Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Dr Karen Taylor, Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare Radiation Oncology, VIC.
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