Eating tips for head and neck radiation patients

Ellen Sweeney, RD
Last Modified: January 6, 2002


Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"

My brother is receiving radiation treatments for his nasopharyngeal cancer. He is losing his taste buds and is very concerned that they will not return once his treatments are completed. He is in Stage 1 of this type of cancer. Will his taste buds return to normal? Also, what can I do in cooking for him that will help him?  


Ellen Sweeney, RD, Clinical Nutrition Specialist at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, responds:

When it comes to radiation to the head/neck area, alterations in a person's sense of taste (or taste loss) and even smell is common. When radiation treatment ends, taste and smell usually return to some extent. The degree of taste to return is difficult to predict from person to person. It can take months after treatment, but usually some sense of taste will return. Many former patients claim that they eventually can taste foods but only for the first few bites and then there is no taste. Keeping the mouth moist helps, so drinking often during eating can increase sense of taste.

While on treatment, there are methods worth trying to increase taste in some foods. For example, marinating poultry, fish and meats in tangy marinades or dressings to add flavor or adding extra herbs and seasonings for increased flavor (but not the spicy, hot type which can be irritating to the oral cavity).

Despite taste loss, it is important to maintain body weight as much as possible through treatment. The use of canned liquid supplements such as Boost Plus, Ensure Plus, Carnation Instant Breakfast, or your own milkshake recipes should be used to add calories when solid food intake is low or not well tolerated. Adding calories to foods that are tolerated is also important (i.e. using extra butter in mashed potatoes, cheese in eggs, etc). A good reference for more ideas like this is the National Cancer Institute's booklet Eating Hints for Cancer Patients.

For more information, also ask to speak with an oncology dietitian where your brother is being treated.