Friday, April 15, 2011

Tasteless

I'm almost at the halfway mark in my radiation treatment: 17 sessions down, 18 to go.

The sessions themselves aren't too bad — I show up, choose some music (they have Grooveshark set up so people can listen to whatever they want) and then lay down so that the technicians can fit my customized mask over my face and secure it to the table. Then I stay perfectly still and focus on the music while an enormous machine rotates around my head, zapping me with high-intensity beams from different angles.

And then it's over and I go home and wait to do it again the next day.

That's not all, of course. On Tuesdays I also meet with my doctor; on Wednesdays I get chemo; on Fridays I've been getting acupuncture as well. My days revolve around getting ready for hospital, traveling to the hospital, waiting in the hospital, being poked with needles/pumped with drugs/zapped with lasers, and traveling home again. Busy busy.

For the most part, luckily, my eating habits have not been disrupted. Or at least not until this week, when mucositis stopped by for a chat and decided to stay. Unable to chew food without pain, suddenly I was back to a diet of soups, Odwalla shakes, and anything that would surrender to my hand-blender.

How I love that blender; it turned leftover bolognese sauce into a rich beef soup (with a good dollop of Greek yogurt). It whizzed a spring risotto into something we decided would make a great party dip. It transformed mashed potato into velvety pommes purées (I suspect the 4:1 potato/butter ratio may have helped a little — hey, doctor says I need calories!).

But something else is happening at the same time: I'm losing my sense of taste.

I knew this was a likely (if not inevitable) side effect of the radiation, but I didn't have a sense of when it would happen or how long it would take.

One morning, as I was slicing up banana for our breakfast smoothie, I popped a piece in my mouth. It tasted ... as though the banana was in the next room.

Later I had pasta, and couldn't detect any flavor (though the pesto with it was as bright as ever).

Roasted cod I tasted, though dimly, especially in contrast to the accompanying black olives.

But cheese is gone. Gone. I tried some Borough Market cheddar — which is pretty strong — and it was just texture, nothing more.

HOW CAN I NOT TASTE CHEESE????

By this morning, the mucositis had subsided to the extent that I was ready for something non-liquidized for lunch. I fried some of the leftover pureed potato in olive oil and made a hole in the middle of the potato mass in the pan. Then I dropped in a pat of butter and threw in an egg. Then I covered the whole thing in parmesan and put it under the broiler to finish. It smelled great.

I was halfway through eating it (small, careful bites) when I realized that I could hardly taste it. There was plenty of mouthfeel: the creamy potatoes, the rich egg yolk, the crunchy extra-fried bits. But not much else.

I went to the kitchen, got the salt grinder, cranked a little onto a mound of potato. Mm .. nope, nothing. Maybe more salt? Nuh-uh.

How about just eating salt by itself? Apply crystals directly to tongue: nada.

Naturally, I did what any self-respecting modern gal would do: I posted this news as my Facebook status. I got a quick response from former coworker (and host of the fabulous 60 Second Recap) Jenny, who asked, "What about umami?"

So I reached for the Heinz ketchup, because it covers all the taste bases. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in The Ketchup Conundrum (a great read in general):
"The taste of Heinz's ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?"
But I didn't get the crescendo. I got:

Sad Trombone

A thin shiver of vinegar; a shadow of sweetness. That's about it.

But my taste hasn't completely gone, at least not yet. I can still tell when something is chocolate, and berries are more or less berries.

And in general, I'm hopeful that the other senses will step up and take over. I'm planning on using a lot of fresh herbs and aromatics, and on making sure (at least when I can chew) there's a good variety of texture in my meals.

Right now I hear The Boy wielding the trusty hand blender. He's roasted some butternut squash and whizzed it into soup for dinner.

I have no idea whether I'll be able to taste it, but boy does it smell good.

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