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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Cancer patients crave veggies, comfort food, survey finds

Disturbed by the lack of attention paid to nutrition during cancer treatment, a new national group called the Cancer Nutrition Consortium recently commissioned a survey of 1,200 patients at seven treatment centers around the country, including Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.

Most cancer patients crave fruit and vegetables, the survey found, and more than half avoid greasy food.

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Carbohydrate-heavy foods like pasta, noodles, potatoes, and casseroles were among patient’s favorites, along with soups, chicken, and fish.

“I love comfort foods right now,” one patient said, expressing a common sentiment.

About four in five patients said they have avoided some kind of food during treatment, including cold drinks and spicy foods, which sometimes burn their throats; foods with crusts, seeds, or pulp, which are too hard to swallow; and “anything that I really liked before treatment. I don’t want to ruin my future experience.”

Forty-one percent of patients reported changes in their sense of taste since beginning treatment, including 19 percent who said food often tasted metallic. One patient complained of inconsistent tastes — what was appealing one day wasn’t desirable the next.

Nearly half the patients reported being bothered by strong smells, including cleaning solutions, perfumes, and food.

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“If I can smell cooking (even good cooking) it kills my appetite,” said one patient, who was among the 45 percent of patients who reported losing weight without trying during treatment.

A cancer diagnosis also changes drinking habits, the survey found. Since beginning treatment, 78 percent said they drank less alcohol.

Nearly all cancer patients suffer some kind of treatment side effect, the survey showed. About 40 percent reported significant fatigue, 33 percent said they were constipated, and 31 percent reported having a poor appetite. More than 25 percent said they often felt nauseated and the same percentage were plagued by a dry mouth. Only 16 percent reported no symptoms from their treatment.

Most of the patients were undergoing
chemotherapy when they took the survey and had been diagnosed within the previous year with breast, lung, blood, or gastrointestinal cancer or some other type of solid tumor.

The survey was sponsored by the Delaware North Companies, a food service company based in Buffalo and a founding member of the consortium.

KAREN WEINTRAUB

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