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Column: Derive to Survive

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Kenneth B. Lourie

Now that I can taste food again, or rather have food taste like normal again, my attitude is much improved. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of some heavy-duty chemotherapy drugs is poor appetite, brought on – occasionally – by the fact that everything you eat and drink (a bit of an exaggeration, but not much) tastes lousy. And it’s been my experience now (nearly three and a half years and still counting) that if I’m not deriving pleasure from what I’m eating and drinking, I am deriving displeasure. Not only am I being deprived of an everyday and much-needed/expected positive reinforcer, I am experiencing a negative of Epicurean proportions. It’s a lose-lose. No wonder I’ve been miserable.

Originally, in March, 2009 when I began my first-line chemotherapy (six cycles/infusions of a chemotherapy cocktail consisting of three drugs for six hours every three weeks), after a few infusions, eating became a challenge. Then it wasn’t that food didn’t taste good, it was that its taste – good or bad, held no particular sway for me. I was indifferent to it; I just wasn’t interested. I was also extremely fatigued from my treatment (red blood cells – in addition to your cancer-carrying white blood cells – are destroyed during treatment; they provide your energy), so even getting off the couch to walk into the kitchen was exhausting. Food was not the answer. In fact, it was more of a question, as in: What am I going to eat? To which my usual reply was: “I don’t care.” And so I lost weight. I remember one appointment with my oncologist during this time when he threatened, unless I gained weight, to hospitalize me. I was hardly shriveling up to nothing, I thought, but I guess I was beginning to shrivel. An unhealthy situation for a cancer patient needing strength to endure his treatment.

And so weight has come off and gone back on, and so forth and so on for nearly three and a half years. As the chemotherapy drugs with which I have been infused have changed, so too have my eating tendencies, not uncommon for patients undergoing treatment for cancer. (Perhaps you’re aware of one of the presumptive benefits of medical marijuana: appetite stimulator, although it was never suggested or prescribed to me.) First and foremost though, the patient has to be able to tolerate the treatment, and being weak – from hunger, complicates the demands on an already compromised immune system (an effect of your white blood cells being destroyed). And if you’ve been given a terminal stage IV diagnosis – with a less than encouraging prognosis, as I had, having circumstances arise – self-imposed or otherwise, which prevent your oncologist from treating you as aggressively as is prudent, is hardly an encouraging start – or finish, to your day.

But this most recent food-taste experience was unique: I felt like eating. I had energy to eat. I even had foods in mind to eat. Unfortunately, the food was either tasteless/disappointing, or in many cases, it was downright putrid – not even mediocre. There was no more looking forward. There was only looking backward to tastier meals and inward to my frustration, and in so doing I felt lousy about myself and my prospects and it was reflected in my column’s content. Now I feel better because I’m eating better. Once again, food tastes like it’s supposed to. I know it’s good for me; I just hope it’s bad for the cancer.

Kenny Lourie is an Advertising Representative for The Potomac Almanac & The Connection Newspapers