Perhaps the cruelest side effect of chemotherapy has to do with one of a human being’s most comforting pleasures: eating.
The chemo drugs kill cancer cells like heat seeking missiles, leaving the body with destructive side effects, just like the aftermath of a bomb.
I’m told everyone who endures chemo experiences it differently. For me, it feels as if a giant grabbed my heel and slammed me into a wall, repeatedly. Add into that nausea, other intestinal issues and a plethora of annoying but less major symptoms like burning, watery eyes, throat sores, loss of appetite and forgetfulness, and you begin to see the total picture.
After those effects begin to fade and appetite returns, the “altered sense” side effect makes itself known.
I was warned that the taste and texture of food would change. It was a simple sentence uttered by my oncologist, combined with a long list of other potential effects. I had no idea how that one thing would become my biggest source of discouragement.
Something about the drugs completely changes how food tastes and feels in my mouth. After hearing about others’ chemo journeys, I’ve come to believe that while this is common, my experience has been on the extreme end of the spectrum.
My family is fascinated by the altered sense concept. Not in a sadistic way, but with an engaging curiosity. When I try a food, make a horrid face and spit it out, their first question is “What does it taste like?” To me, the taste is indescribable: totally alien and disgusting, depending on the food, but usually like something you shouldn’t be eating. The partner to that is a texture change which creates a gag reflex for most things, including water.
There is a little game on the market called “BeanBoozled,” by Jelly Belly. It provides a great parallel. The game consists of a number of sets of jelly beans, several of each color. Spin an arrow and eat the jelly bean color the arrow points at. If you’re lucky, you get a jelly bean that tastes as it should: lemon, strawberry or peach, for example. If you’re the unlucky sort, you might end up with a jelly bean that LOOKS like it’s going to taste good but actually tastes noxious, like skunk, diapers, dog food or grass clippings.
“ChemoBoozled” does the same thing, except the stakes are higher. Combine an altered sense of taste with a hollow belly, an intense desire for comfort and flavor and you have an equation that equals discouragement and anxiety.
I’ve begun to tense up before I eat. The fear that the food, which I desperately want to taste good, will instead be disgusting, makes me dread eating. That sounds extreme, but right now, it’s my reality.
The other reality is that I’ve lost the ability to taste salt. Even Ramen noodles do not taste salty. Never a “salt- food junky,” now, I crave salty things.
I have one more chemo treatment to go. Prayerfully, that will be it. Over time, I’m told that the altered sense and texture issues will fade away. I’m already daydreaming about the things I will eat, cook and bake. The list of restaurants I want to go to increases daily. I can’t wait to eat a thick, juicy burger, loaded with bacon and cheese, along with a heap of salty French fries. But, I’d settle, right now, for a can of Pringles, if I could just taste the salt and get past the texture.
In the Word, Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth.
Matthew 5:13 (NIV)
“You are the salt of the earth. But, if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”
As believers, filled by God’s Holy Spirit, we are to be as salt, flavoring the world with the character of Christ. Never before has this verse meant as much to me as it does now.
What do others experience when they cross paths with me? Is the flavor of my character that of Christ or is it one that turns people away, leaving them with a bad taste in their mouth? I’d like to think that most of the time people see the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, (from Galatians 5:22, NIV), but I know sometimes I fail.
As Christ followers, we are all still at war with our humanity. God does, however, expect us, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, to adhere to a higher standard of behavior. Thank goodness our salvation doesn’t depend on how well we do that, but someone else’s salvation might. If they meet us, and are drawn to our character, they may want to know the source of that character. Then, we get to share the other quality of salt: preservation and the gift of life eternal, through Jesus Christ.
I challenge you to be thankful for every bite of food that goes in your mouth. Genuinely, passionately thankful that you can taste, relish and enjoy the food God has provided you. In addition, I encourage you to consider salt. What would meat be without it? Salt is one of the most important seasonings. Food is bland without salt! Are you striving (not in your own power, but the power of the Holy Spirit) to bring the flavor of Christ to a world that craves it? Craves it, in fact, without sometimes knowing what they crave.