Taste and Smell Changes With Ovarian Cancer Treatment

Changes in taste and smell are common side effects of ovarian cancer treatment. These changes can lead to decreased appetite, weight loss, a dislike and avoidance of certain foods, and slower healing.1-3

How does cancer treatment affect taste and smell?

Taste and smell are closely linked. Losing your sense of smell can affect your sense of taste.3

Common reports of taste and smell changes during cancer treatment include:1-5

  • Food tastes bland.
  • Food tastes bad.
  • You cannot smell food.
  • All food tastes the same.
  • Food suddenly tastes different, especially foods that are extra salty, sweet, or bitter.
  • You have a metallic taste in your mouth, especially after eating meat.

As you can see, these changes vary from person to person. Some may prefer stronger-tasting and stronger-smelling foods because of their inability to taste much at all. Others are much more sensitive to certain foods and prefer blander options.3

Which cancer treatments cause changes in taste and smell?

Several types of cancer treatment can cause taste and smell changes. These treatments include:1-5

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  • Chemotherapy. About half of people who are on chemotherapy have taste changes.
  • Immunotherapy. Biologics, such as interleukin-2, have caused taste and smell changes.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation can affect taste and smell, especially if it is directed at the head and neck area.
  • Other medicines. Antibiotics (to treat infections) and pain medicines (to treat pain) can alter your sense of taste and smell.

Other causes may include:1,4

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Surgery to the nose, throat, or mouth
  • Dehydration
  • Dry mouth, mouth infections, and mouth sores
  • Teeth and gum problems
  • Nerve damage
  • Gastric reflux

How to manage taste and smell changes

Taste and smell changes can cause decreased appetite and weight loss. This means you are less likely to eat the calories and nutrients you need in order to heal. Here are some ways to cope with taste and smell changes.1,3-5

When food tastes bland:1,3-5

  • Add extra herbs and spices to amp up the flavor. Try garlic, oregano, cumin, rosemary, chili powder, and mint.
  • Season foods with lemon, lime, and other citrus fruits. However, avoid these if you have mouth sores.
  • Add bacon bits, nuts, and dressings to foods for added taste.
  • Add sea salt.

When food tastes metallic or bitter:1,3-5

  • Use plastic utensils and glass cookware instead of metal.
  • Chew on sugar-free gum, mints, and hard candies. These can help mask a bitter and metallic taste. Try flavors like lemon, orange, and peppermint.
  • Avoid canned vegetables and fruit. Eat fresh and frozen instead.
  • Add tart flavors like citrus and vinegar to your menu. Also try pickled foods.
  • Add sweetener, such as maple syrup or honey, to foods. Sweeter foods can offset a bitter taste.

When food tastes bad:1,3-5

  • Use a mouth rinse before eating to reduce any bad tastes. Mix 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda with 1 cup of warm water.
  • Do not eat immediately before or after getting cancer treatment. Allow 1 to 2 hours before eating anything.
  • Marinate meats before cooking them. Try soy sauce, dressings, prepared marinades, barbeque sauce, or fruit juices.
  • If you have an aversion to meats, use other protein sources like eggs, dairy, nut butters, beans, peas, or legumes.
  • Try making smoothies with fresh or frozen fruit, spinach, and dairy. Add some honey or maple syrup for extra sweetness.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Brush and floss your teeth daily to maintain good oral hygiene.

Do not force yourself to eat any food that smells or tastes bad to you. You may find that certain foods taste bad one day and not the next day. Above all, listen to your body.5

How long do taste and smell changes last?

Changes in taste and smell are unfortunate side effects, but they typically go away after cancer treatment ends. Most people regain their sense of taste and smell in the weeks and months following treatment.1,2-4

Work with your healthcare team

Tell your doctor if you are having any changes in taste or smell. They may be able to prescribe you medicine or a supplement like zinc sulfate that can help foods taste better. They may also recommend you work with a dietitian or nutritionist to make sure you are getting the right amount of calories and nutrients to heal and recover.1,4

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