March 16, 2023

What Was Your Go-To Food During Treatment?

Mac and cheese? Plain pasta? M & M’s? I’d love to create a list of tips based on what you did and didn’t want to eat during cancer treatment and why. The why part is particularly interesting because it may help other young adult cancer patients (and older patients too!) figure out what to eat while they’re addressing similar food challenges.

I recently read a smart theory from cookbook author Rebecca Katz. When your taste buds are whacked from treatment you can balance the taste of your food by adjusting these ingredients: Fat, Acid, Salty, Sweet (FASS). She recommends if food is tasting like cardboard add a pinch of sea salt or a squeeze of lemon. After all, tortilla chips are just cardboard with a pinch of salt and squeeze of lime, and I can eat a whole bag in one sitting.

Here’s my cancer treatment and food low down:

Treatment: Radioactive Iodine Treatment - low iodine diet
Favorite Food: Low-iodine homemade bread, avocado, no-iodine salt, lime
Why: My energy was low and this took so little effort to make. (Thanks to my friend Sean Feit who baked and delivered iodine free bread to my apartment regularly!) I could also toss bread slices, an avocado, knife, salt and lime in my bag and have food on the go. Sounds like a pain in the ass to lug around but it beats starving. Plus, on the ultra-restrictive low-iodine diet, avocados were one of the few veggies (okay they’re a fruit) that were filling and put some meat on my bones! I also recommend eating it on a pretty blue plate - it looks fantastic against the avocado and you can trick yourself into thinking you are eating a gourmet meal.

Leave a comment with your type of treatment, what foods you liked to eat, and why they worked for you. Let’s get 25 responses so that these comments can serve as a mini-food guide for others going through treatment.

I’m a total cookbook slut and adore Rebecca’s new book ‘The Cancer Fighting Kitchen’. Gorgeous photos, great recipes, super practical info. Nominated for a cookbook award among the ranks of general cookbooks by authors like the food editor of Martha Stewart Living, Vote for it here!

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  1. H Lee D Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 9:19 AM

    treatment: ABVD chemotherapy
    favorite foods: mashed potatoes and popsicles
    why: In the days after chemo, I didn’t feel great and couldn’t eat much. Mashed potatoes were bland and carby (good for the unhappy tummy) but warm (good for the soul). It didn’t take long to add mashed potatoes to the shopping list in the days before chemo so I’d be ready.

    Popsicles because water tasted like pennies and was disgusting. In “normal life,” water is pretty much all I drink — I don’t like soda. Doc told me not to drink more than a serving of juice per day because it’s fortified and he didn’t want me having the extra vitamins. I learned very quickly the side effects of becoming dehydrated, so popsicles were my go-to to stay hydrated without drinking pennies.

  2. Marika Holmgren Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    treatment: adriamycin cytoxin and taxol
    favorite foods: plain pasta, hot dogs, jolly ranchers, bubbly water with citrus
    I NEVER eat hot dogs, but craved them during chemo. Plain pasta was a great go to food. Anything too complex was not welcome. Jolly ranchers were great to suck on to cover the constant metallic taste. I drank bubbly water constantly and that seemed to taste much better than plain water.

  3. Jess Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    Treatment: Low-iodine diet for radiation treatment (thyroid cancer)

    Favorite Food: Orzo pasta with olive oil, asparagus, and unsalted, slivered almonds

    Why: It tasted so good and is really easy to make and good for you! Boil the orzo as directed on the box. Drain, and add some olive oil. Cook asparagus, cut into small pieces, and add to pasta. Add toasted, unsalted, slivered almonds. Mix together and add some uniodized salt and pepper to taste. YUM! You can keep a big bowl of it in the refrigerator … it tastes good hot or cold. :)

  4. Cate Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 11:02 AM

    Treatment: 9 surgeries. I had violent reactions to almost every med I was given. Allergic/Anaphylactic shock and violent vomiting with all narcotics and Tamoxifen wreaked havoc on my stomach.

    Favorite foods: I lived on pastina and farina. Simple to make when I was dragging and easy on the stomach, yet fairly filling. They were both very comforting mentally because my Mom made them whenever I was ill as a kid. I also drank coconut water as it helped replenish electrolytes and potassium without being fake like a sports drink. I was always depleted and water wasn’t cutting it alone.

  5. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 2:26 PM

    Cate - I appreciate that your comment is a reminder to all that surgery is a form of treating cancer. Often when we hear treatment we automatically think chemo or radiation. I have even met some cancer patients who have had surgery but no chemo or radiation and they feel like somehow they are not really members of the club. Surgery is no simple feat and involves a lot of recovery - in the food department and otherwise. Sorry for all you have gone through!

  6. Cathy Bueti Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 3:41 PM

    Treatment: A/C and Taxol

    Everything pretty much tasted like metal. The only things that tasted good and I ate alot of were mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches. Total comfort food. I was supposed to drink tons of water but it tasted awful to me. Lemon probably would have helped to add to the water as it also helps rehydrate.

    I got sick after eating a hot dog during my treatments and wouldn’t eat one for years after. To this day I still don’t like them much.

  7. caroline Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 4:02 PM

    Treatment: thyroidectomy (very small let’s-hope-they-got-it-all-papillary cancer)

    Smoothies saved the day since I was having such difficulty swallowing. Fortunately, the hospital kitchen made some delicious ones and they were easy for me to make (whizzed milk, banana and frozen berries in the blender) after I returned home. Actually, the blender got quite a workout as I pureed nearly anything in sight, which made for some interesting culinary concoctions…! Also, because of the swallowing difficulties, fruit sauces - apple, apricot, pear - came in handy for mixing with all the (crushed) calcium supplements.

    *yes, I am one of those who’s been wondering if she’s “one of the club,”

  8. Pat Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    Treatment: Low Iodine - Thyroid Cancer
    Favorite- I really was not a big fan of the diet. I would have to say bakery bread. One thing I have grown to dislike- Cream of Wheat. YUCK!!!! After surgery. Soft foods for both surgeries. Never eat a burger on the grill after surgery,Ouch… One year my doctors had me eat only frozen dinners. Healthy choice. Only certain ones. I actually had a list from the doctor. That was interesting.

  9. Christine Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    Treatment: idarubicin and cytarabine
    I didn’t have any issues with foods tasting funny, so even though I could eat just about anything, I definitely craved certain things. I craved rice and beans during treatment, rather than meat. I also craved lots of vegetables and fruit, which was a bit trickier since I had to be careful about eating uncooked produce since I was severely immunocompromised. (I went through treatment for leukemia so every round of chemo wiped out my immune system.) I had a fantastic family that worked to cook lots of veggies and clean my fruit for me so I could eat what my body asked for. Since finishing treatment, I’ve found I lean a lot more towards a veggie/whole-grain based diet than I ever did before treatment. Interesting how that’s changed.

  10. frank Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 6:08 PM

    The past couple months on chemo, I’ve absolutely LOVED the microwavable packets of rice. Quick, easy, a decent variety of flavors, all of them gentle on the palate and the grumpy chemo tummy. So grateful for the friend who turned me on to their existance.

  11. Karen Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 6:25 PM

    Treatment: Rectal Surgery

    When I was discharged from the hospital I hadn’t eaten anything except ice chips for 5 days. I was pretty hungry, but I had a significant amount of concern and fear about going to the bathroom after my surgery. So I drank a lot of water and dined on applesauce, chocolate pudding (this was my favorite), popsicles, and finally graduated to english muffins. It took a while before I could eat fruit, veggies, etc.

    Now, 6 months after surgery, I’m back to a mostly normal diet, but still struggle with digestive issues so I avoid certain foods and find myself gravitating toward chocolate pudding when my colon needs a break.

  12. Ann Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 7:02 PM

    2nd RAI treatment. Apples with natural peanut butter/ no-iodine salt added. This time I was more prepared with the diet and ready for the “Hypo-Hell”. Some of the recipes in the low-iodine cookbook were really good. The griddle cakes- cook ahead and freeze, orzo salad and spinich (romaine) apple salad, Almond milk! Great on cereal. Would love to find more protein sources for quick snacks but will handle that next year!

  13. Kim Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 7:34 PM

    Post-thyroidectomy - Jello and pudding were the easiest to tolerate. Most other foods tasted way too salty or way too sweet, esp for the first 24-hrs post-op. Then again, maybe I was just severely dehydrated!

  14. Lori Hope Says:
    March 16th, 2010 at 11:46 PM

    Treatment: surgery and resulting lack of appetite

    Fave food: homemade ice cream (from my friend, Ellice - see my latest blog post:

    What I would crave now: anything from Rebecca Katz’s cookbooks. Just another thing we have in common, my friend!

    So good to have you back in the blogosphere!

  15. Cate Says:
    March 17th, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    I always feel that I’m not a “member of the club” for the very reason that I didn’t have chemo. I’ll avoid telling people as much because I feel like I didn’t have it as hard so why should I complain… this, even though I had 9 surgeries and all with no pain medication. I did receive spinals for 2 procedures, but once they were removed post surgery I had to recover with no aid. Not fun, but we do what we have to, right? Thanks for reminding me that I paid my dues as well. It’s very much appreciated.

  16. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    March 17th, 2010 at 3:33 PM

    Cate - You are very welcome. Your comments have spurred me on and I’d like to write a whole post about this topic next month. Aside from your own grueling medical experiences, I assume that you might also face some of the mental roller coaster that other patients with cancer face - not knowing if it is gone, if it will come back, how people react to you as a cancer patient, facing medical bills, insurance. These are all very real, hard parts of this crummy disease whether you’ve had chemo or not!

  17. Pat Steer (Gaelen) Says:
    March 17th, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    I love Rebecca’s ‘One Bite at a Time’ and I wished I’d had it during treatment.
    My treatments - Folfox with Avastin, Folfiri in many dose levels and FUDR in an HAI pump, pelvic radiation, Xeloda and finally just plain ol’ 5FU and Leucovorin all made everything taste like crap.
    The foods that broke through?
    - homemade protein shakes made with cold hazelnut coffee and chocolate protein powder
    - garlic parmesan chicken wings (now I can barely look at them!)
    - anything Mexican, but chilaquiles and chiles rellenos were favorites.
    Something about the tartness of orange or grapefruit juice, V8 or lemonade always cut through the taste, so winter and summer that stuff was always in the house.
    Hope you enjoyed your vacation, Kairol, and a good St. Patrick’s Day to you. ;)

  18. Diet Meal Says:
    March 18th, 2010 at 1:29 PM

    Cantonese foods tend to be less spicy in general, as Chinese food goes, with some of the primary cooking styles being roasting and braising foods.

  19. Genevieve Thul Says:
    March 19th, 2010 at 12:57 AM

    Treatment: RAI - low-iodine diet
    Favorite foods:
    >Minimal whole wheat pasta (no iodine) cooked, then tossed with some Parmesan, fresh diced tomatoes from my garden, zucchini & lemon juice
    >Bean soup made with homemade stock (thanks Mom - no iodine!), tomatoes, potatoes, bean, peas, and carrots
    >Matzo crackers with sharp aged cheese

  20. Alk Says:
    March 21st, 2010 at 9:07 PM

    Hey Jess, you know you can have salt (try David’s kosher) on the low iodine diet. You just can’t have iodizied salt or sea salt, but you can have salt…. so you don’t have to have your meals unsalted.

    Me? On the low iodine diet which I have now done 3 times. The first time I hired a personal chef b/c I was so busy with work, Ithought I would be too tired ot cook with withdrawl. but the last 2 times I did thyrogen. The last time, I bought salt-free ketchup, frozen salt-free organic french fries and the DOUSED them in kosher salt. That and some home made muffins got me through.

    I’ll find out next week if I am up for year 4 of the diet. They just changed the guidelines last year and my ultrasound was clear (thankfully) so maybe I won’t have to do it, just the thyrogen and the bloodwork. Maybe we won’t have to do the scan too. Well,I go with whatever my dr says.

    I am thin. I really don’t need to loose 5-10 lbs in a week on what my close friend calls the peaches and lettuce diet. We’ll see. I HATE THAT DIET.

  21. Ryan Says:
    March 21st, 2010 at 10:59 PM

    Treatment: Hyper-CVAD & BEAM in preparation for a stem cell transplant.

    Food: During Hyper-CVAD, I ate whatever I felt like, that being things like steak and different cakes. These fatty foods seemed to balance out the days when I didn’t eat much of anything. At the time I drank a lot of Propel too, which now tastes like cancer to me.

    During my SCT, I ate one bagel over the course of 23 days. When I was released, my taste buds were in terrible shape. The only thing that tasted remotely normal was yogurt, so I ate a lot of that. I haven’t eaten it since, but I have somewhat fond memories of it, unlike Propel.

  22. Peggy Says:
    March 22nd, 2010 at 1:55 AM

    treatment 1 ABVD for 8 1/2 months Chinese Fried Rice

    Radiation: Every sucked and my throat and lungs were bleeding

    Stem cell therapys: High Dose Chemo “ICE” Chinese Sizzling Rice Soup (extra rice) and Mongolian Beef my boyfriend would sneak into City of Hope

    Methotrexate: I threw up for a week non stop… couldn’t eat anything

    Treatment for Invasive Aspirgillus : Comfort Food… I thought I wasn’t going to make it

    I have this Cookbook and met the author at UCSF. She is AMAZING!

  23. Sat Atma Kaur Says:
    March 22nd, 2010 at 11:45 AM

    Treatment: Surgery x2, radioactive iodine

    Food: Pasta, in all shapes, sizes and forms. Ice cream, all flavors, as long as it was cold. Apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
    I was given orange and lemon Jello after both surgeries- to this day I have not been able to eat them!

  24. Lindsay Says:
    March 24th, 2010 at 1:40 AM

    Major surgery: COMPLETELY lost my appetite for about a month. Drank BOOST extra protein, craved root beer floats, and eventually fell in love with watermelon :)
    Radiation: No food aversions..
    Chemo, (Sutent): Gave me horrible mouth sores the first couple months. So nothing too tart, spicy, or even hot temperature wise. I became obsessed with frozen berries, raspberries/blackberries in particular. Plain pasta, I developed a bad taste aversion to sandwich meat for some reason! Couldn’t look at it for a long time.
    I also fell in love with Yoplait yogurt, so many flavors and calmed my stomach down.

  25. Ollie McKay's Says:
    April 30th, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    Aaccckkkkkkk. . . . . .I had no favorites because I had to have a feeding tube for 4 months (it was put directly into my stomach and I had to pour Ensure into the tube 4 or 5 times a day) Cream of wheat and Yoplait were the only things I could “sort of” swallow - but with no taste buds, I didn’t even do that! It was about 9 months before I could eat most things again without choking every time! I just got reinvolved with Relay for Life again this year - I’m nearing my 5 yr mark!! Just now feeling ready to do so - hard to explain why I couldn’t get back to it for so long??? Happy Friday to all!!

  26. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    April 30th, 2010 at 10:39 AM


    Sorry that you had to live the reminder to us all that being able to eat is a luxury. It sounds like you have been to hell and back.

    I don’t know why it was so hard for you to get back into Relay for Life again, but it doesn’t sound unreasonable to me at all that it would be a challenge. When I was traveling the country doing interviews for my book, I heard over and over that life after treatment was the hardest time for most cancer patients. It is not an easy dive back into the life we had before cancer.

    All my best to you,

  27. Heather Says:
    July 4th, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    Treatment: Surgery x3, soon to be x4 for vocal cord cancer, plus one more to remove my widsom teeth prophylactically should I need radation which resulted in a fractured maxillary sinus

    Food: KFC mashed potatoes, applesauce, food-processed potatoe salad

    Why: Survery on my vocal cords leaves my throat raw. Both standard scalpal and laser have been used. I too do not tolerate narcotics well, so I only treat the pain with liquid tylenol. So many soft foods are sweet and the KFC taters and processed potatoe salad offer such a nice change from all the sweet stuff (popsicles, pudding, etc.)

    I, like Cate, have not have chemo and I haven’t had radiation either, just surgery. It does make me feel like somewhat of an outsider and like what I have gone through is not as “bad.” Even though I went 14 months before being diagnosed, my cancer had not spread, hence the no chemo. I have not had radiation because of the risk is poses for more tumors and the fact that if I have radiation on my vocal cords and the cancer comes back, my only option left is a laryngectomy (hole in the neck, electronic voice box, no more breathing through my mouth, you get the picture.) I am holding out for radiation as my absolute last option.

  28. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 4th, 2010 at 10:53 PM

    Heather, I’m sorry for all that you have gone through. You might not have had chemo but wondering if in the future your cancer would come back and if you’d need radiation, or a laryngectomy sounds like no picnic to me. We each face different kinds of hardships with cancer. Hang in there. I hope the very best for you! Kairol

  29. Heather Says:
    July 18th, 2010 at 9:30 PM

    This isn’t exactly on topic for this thread, but I wanted to let you know that I just finished your book tonight and LOVE, LOVE, LOVED it!! There are no resources for me in my area for 20-30 somethings with cancer. There are no support groups for head/neck cancer either. Thank you SO MUCH for putting together a resource that is so real and relevant. I ordered myself a batch of i[2]y wrist bands last week. I am looking forward to checking out more of the resources in the book too. I’m actually planning to read it again, just so I can soak it up some more. I stumbled across your book while I was meandering through Amazon — I am so glad I found it! Thank you again and I wish you the best in your continuing journey with stupid cancer.

    Freel free to check out my caringbridge site which gives insight into the road I’ve walked:

  30. JohnL Says:
    October 15th, 2010 at 11:00 PM

    Cancer: Stage IV Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma metastatic to a half-dozen lymph nodes in the neck. Surgery and radiotherapy, but no chemotherapy.

    Surgery (5 hours and two surgeons): Modified radical neck dissection that removed the patch of skin behind the ear responsible for this mess, 22 lymph nodes, and the parotid gland in which a couple of the lymph nodes were embedded.

    Radiotherapy: 31 daily sessions spanning six weeks. Radiation field encompassed area around ear, jaw and neck on left side. The surgery was a cakewalk compared to the radiation side-effects. First came swollen, dry and very raw throat during week two from complete lack of saliva and radiation burn. Required major changes in what I was eating to swallow it. By the end of week three nearly everything tasted horrid except salty foods. The worst were anything sweet and anything with citric or malic acid. Radiotherapy puts the body into overdrive attempting to repair the major damage it is doing at a molecular level daily and causes dehydration. It requires constant fluid intake and a calorie increase of 40-50% above what would normally maintain weight (zero gain/loss) to keep from losing weight. For me it was a leap from 2100-2200 to 2800-3000 calories per day, and it must provide the nutrients needed or they’ll be robbed from elsewhere in the body. Not easy to accomplish when the throat and mouth have been thoroughly thrashed and nearly everything, including water, starts tasting like it came from a septic tank.

    Like many H&N radiotherapy patients it took months to recover from all this afterward and there are some permanent effects including greatly reduced saliva (dry mouth). I’m lucky this is the only one that affects eating.

    Foods that enabled eating through it all:
    * Kraft macaroni and cheese with grated cheddar cheese added for more calories, protein, calcium, and to help everything slide down.

    * Scrambled eggs with grated hard cheddar cheese added for same purpose as adding it to the macaroni and cheese. At one point a typical serving used four large eggs to keep the calories up.

    * Pancakes slathered with butter (real, salted kind) and maple syrup (also the real stuff). Ate this while I could still tolerate sweet foods. If the pancakes seem dry, just add more syrup to lube them up more.

    * Thick and Chunky soups without any tomato or tomato products to avoid malic acid which would burn a raw throat. Added meats to all of these to increase protein and other nutrients. Rotated through four favorites (1 can = 2 servings): Progresso Rich and Hearty Chicken and Homestyle Noodles with a small can of chicken meat added. Progresso Rich and Hearty New England Clam Chowder with a small can of whole baby clams added. Campbell’s Potato Ham Chowder with a small can of Hormel chunked ham added. Sweet Sue or Dinty Moore Chicken and Dumplings with small can of chicken meat added (Sweet Sue has lower sodium). Those with sodium restrictions will need to consider how much soup and added meat they’re consuming as this all has a high sodium content. I quit adding salt to anything.

    * Jello with zero or low citric acid content and puddings, while I could still eat foods that tasted sweet.

    * Canned apples, pears and peaches in heavy syrup, and applesauce while I could still eat sweet foods. Cooked, canned fruit was much softer than fresh fruit. The heavy syrup added calories and lubed them up to slide down.

    I’ve since gone back to many other foods, including meats and breads, but still need to watch how “dry” my meals are due to lack of saliva. Hope this helps others who have their throats thoroughly thrashed by radiation. Maintaining nutrition at a substantially higher than normal calorie intake was a major challenge.

  31. Laura Says:
    May 23rd, 2011 at 10:59 AM

    Treatment:Surgery, and pending RAI treatment

    Food: chopped tomatoes/garlic warmed on matzoh crackers, avocados, hash browns with homemade ketchup, pasta tossed with mushrooms, oil, herbs, and chicken- salad with lemon, pepper, and oil.

    Why:This was all very easy to make. I have not been off my thyroid medication prior to my RAI treatment yet, but my medication is not currently monitored or adjusted, so I still feel a great deal of fatigue. This is my second time on the Low Iodine Diet. I was given a CT scan in February (the scan that found something wrong) and was administered a dye that had 5,000 units of iodine. It’s still trying to work it’s way out of my system 3 months later. I have to go on a low-iodine diet for 1 week at the end of each month, then take a 24 hour urine sample to see if my iodine levels are below 100% saturation because we can’t move forward with treatment unless they are.

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