I can taste it as soon as the needle goes in, as if aluminum foil were coiling around my taste buds. I pop in a frozen strawberry, trying to avoid mouth sores and mask the metallic taste, but that only stops me from wanting to eat strawberries ever again. It’s the red devil: Adriamycin, or “Adria," a drug with a deep and ominous cherry color. Adria is so toxic that it can blister and damage tissue if it escapes from the vein, requiring a well-trained nurse to carefully administer it. Chemo never tasted so bitter.
I’d heard about metal mouth from some cancer veterans. It is an unpleasant side-effect of my treatment, one that makes my entire mouth taste like a tin can for about a week after I’m done with a round of infusions. By my second treatment, I understand why hard candies abound in the chemo suite. I have little appetite, but cannot bear to have my mouth empty, the taste of aluminum on my tongue.
I love food seriously. Even when I worked part-time for slightly more than minimum wage – when I measured how many meals I needed to get from a batch of lentil soup – I would splurge on sustainably sourced Alaskan salmon or spend an entire day’s paycheck on European cheeses.
I love food seriously ... I would splurge an entire day’s paycheck on European cheeses.
My mother sometimes criticizes me for talking about food too much. “It’s obnoxious,” she’ll say with a laugh, as I down an $8 bar of craft chocolate. Friends realize on vacation just how deep this obsession runs when I detour for specialty pistachios or go hungry for hours anticipating a better meal option to come.
Chemotherapy plays a perverse trick. Just when I need comfort food the most, just when I should be devouring all of my favorite foods in the world, I lose the will to eat. Even when my hunger is great enough to override the nausea, indigestion and exhaustion, food doesn’t taste the same. Even water is ruined. Every gulp tastes like I’m swooshing pennies around my mouth.
But I’ve got my eyes on the long game. I refuse to let this temporary intervention destroy my favorite flavors. We celebrate a family birthday around my IV bag with some Indian food. I take one bite and realize that saag paneer will forever be tainted if I go on eating. I suggest the best pasta in the East Village for my family to order after a long day at the hospital, then have a few bites before my head collapses on the dinner table. I decide semi-sleep is preferable to penne. I won’t go near chocolate for at least a week after I feel those drugs leave my system.
Certain foods begin to make me sick in all kinds of ways. My repertoire of choices is ever-diminishing. No grapefruit, no green tea, no raw fish, no raw vegetables, no corn, no soft cheese. To be denied pizza in New York City is a cruelty tough to bear. I make mental lists of everything I will eat when this treatment is over. A bill of clean health gives me free rein over my food choices.
One day, while I'm recovering at my parents' house, my mother uses every bit of creative energy to figure out what to feed me. No one goes hungry in her home. It’s been a few days since I have eaten anything substantial, but nothing sounds appealing.
Just when I need comfort food the most, just when I should be devouring all of my favorite foods in the world, I lose the will to eat.
Ever-resourceful, she pulls out some potatoes and throws them in a pot to boil. I sit on the couch until she calls me over to the kitchen table. She dumps a heaping pile of starch in front of me, and pours a hefty dose of olive oil on top to plump me up. I remember that first sweet bite. I can’t believe a potato can taste this good. This simple, humble nourishment turns me into a ravenous beast with the energy level of a sedated sloth.
These salty, sour, bitter bites are just what I crave. I begin to trade culinary tricks in the oncological waiting room with other patients: ginger tea, kefir yogurt, arugula pesto. My life as a foodie extends even into the cancer world.
I can't recall when the metal mouth left me for the last time. The transition back to my old self takes time. Months after I finish my last round of chemo, I take my family out for a beautiful seven-course meal to celebrate my taste buds come back to life. It is a perfect moment for all of us. Yet it was the smell of that mighty potato, the taste of salt and oil hitting my tongue, that filled me with a craving I forgot I had.