Navigating Dinner When the Food Tastes Worse Than the Plate

By Shayne Robinson, R.D., C.S.O, C.D.N

Food photo_Cancer Taste ChangesSweet, salty, savory and sour are words we often use to describe different flavors in the foods we eat, but cancer and its treatments can turn your sense of taste upside down. It is normal to experience taste changes as a result of cancer and cancer treatment. Some people report a bitter or metallic taste in their mouth, while others find that their overall sense of taste has diminished.

How foods taste and smell can change from day to day, and these changes may affect your appetite. To find foods that are appealing, try experimenting with new foods or cuisines, marinades and spices. It can even help to try new ways of preparing the foods you typically eat. Good oral care is also important.

Here are some tips to help combat common cancer-related taste changes:

Loss of Taste

  • Choose foods with strong and/or tart flavors, such as citrus fruits, vinegar and pickled foods. Marinate meats, chicken and fish to infuse flavor. Try strong flavored greens such as arugula or mizuna greens. Caution: avoid acidic foods if you have a sore mouth or throat.
  • Zinc deficiency can decrease your sense of taste. Discuss testing your zinc level and/or supplementing zinc with your health care provider.

Unpleasant Salty, Bitter, Acidic or Metallic Tastes

  • Add a sweet flavor to foods such as topping salad with fruit. Try topping meats, chicken and fish with a fruit chutney.
  • Use plastic utensils or chopsticks if metal forks and spoons taste unpleasant.
  • Add lemon juice, cucumber slices, cranberries or other flavorings to water.
  • Suck on slices of Granny Smith Apples or frozen chunks of pineapple.

Meat Tastes Strange

  • Choose other protein-rich foods (such as poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, tofu or soy milk) instead of meat.
  • Marinate and cook meats, poultry and fish in sweet juices, soy sauce, acidic dressings or wine.

Overwhelming Food Odors

  • Choose foods that are served cold, such as sandwiches, crackers and cheese, yogurt and fruit, or cold cereal and milk. Foods served hot often have stronger odors.
  • Carry a handkerchief dabbed with oil that has a pleasant odor such as mint or lavender.
  • Eat in cool, well-ventilated rooms that don’t have any food or cooking odors.
  • Drink oral supplements in a covered cup and with a straw to reduce the odor of the supplement.

Oral Care Tips

  • To keep your mouth clean and healthy, rinse and brush your teeth after meals and before bed (or every four hours during the day).
  • Before eating, rinse your mouth with a solution of 1 quart water, ¾ teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon baking soda. This rinse can help keep your mouth clean and improve your sense of taste.

While taste changes can be common during cancer treatment, eating well during treatment can decrease side effects. Good nutrition will help you maintain your weight, your strength, and maximize your quality of life.

If you are struggling with taste changes or any treatment side effects that affect your ability to eat, consult with a Registered Dietitian (RD). Nothing replaces the individualized counseling you will receive from working with an RD on a one-on-one basis. To see a dietitian at the NewYork-Presbyterian Outpatient Nutrition Practice call (212) 746-0838 (physician referral required).

What are Cancer Neoantigens? The Link Between Neoantigens and Immunotherapy

By Bishoy Faltas, M.D.

Our immune system has evolved over time to enable us to fight infections. Our bodies need to differentiate between our own cells (self) and cells from bacteria and viruses (non-self) in order to mount an effective attack to eliminate the invaders. In order to do that, our immune system has learned to recognize fragments of foreign proteins, which carry a specific sequence that marks them as “targets” for the immune system. We call these antigens.

Cancer cells thrive because they hide from the immune system, but their disguise is not perfect. Cells typically become cancerous because of changes in their genetic makeup. These same changes can result in proteins that the immune system is able to recognize as foreign. These are called neoantigens, and refer to new cancer antigens that cue the immune system to attack the cancer and eliminate it.

neoantigen[2]
New sequencing technologies enable us to detect new cancer antigens unique to each patient.
The immune system just needs a little help to make this happen. To tip the balance in favor of the immune system, we now use drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors. These unleash the power of the immune system to attack the tumor. A good way to think about it is as “releasing the brakes” off the immune response. This approach to treatment is very promising for bladder cancer, especially when other treatments have failed to stop the cancer from progressing or metastasizing to other organs.

To understand which patients are most likely to respond to these immune checkpoint inhibitors, we conducted a study examining the neoantigens in bladder cancer patients at Weill Cornell Medicine. Our analyses found many differences in the neoantigens between untreated tumors and advanced tumors that had previously been treated with chemotherapy from advanced chemotherapy-resistant bladder cancers. More details on our findings can be found here:

In the future, we are hoping to use neoantigens as biomarkers that tell us which patients are most likely to respond to specific immunotherapies. A form of precision medicine, this will help us to narrowly tailor our treatment approach to each patient.

Some of our current immunotherapy treatments for people with bladder cancers include:

Cancer: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Immunotherapy wolf in disguiseCancer cells can be pretty sneaky, altering their make-up or microenvironment to avoid detection by our body’s immune system. As a result, the immune system, which is designed to fight off “invaders,” can’t detect cancer as foreign and doesn’t have its guard up.

Earlier this month, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital kicked off a new ad campaign highlighting how immunotherapy is working to change just that. Immunotherapy treatments are designed to help activate the immune system and kick it into high gear, helping it fight the very cancer it was previously unable to detect.

New scientific discoveries happening right here at Weill Cornell Medicine are making this possible. Our physician-scientists and researchers at the Meyer Cancer Center have found ways to help the immune system better recognize and destroy cancer cells by designing new immunotherapy drugs, cancer “vaccines,” and combination treatments. Through precision medicine and an individualized approach to cancer care, we are developing new ways to treat cancer more successfully than ever before. And, we’re accomplishing these results with less toxicity.

Over the past decade, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several new immunotherapy drugs for advanced cancers. At the Weill Cornell Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program, we have greatly contributed to the efforts to obtain FDA-approval for immunotherapies for GU cancers, including kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and prostate cancer.

For kidney cancer, we have been involved in many studies of drugs utilizing the immune system to fight cancer, including the phase 2 clinical trial that formed the basis for the large trial leading to the FDA approval and general availability of nivolumab (Opdivo) for renal cell carcinoma. Nivolumab is an immunotherapy that works by allowing the body’s existing immune system to kill tumors. Our team is now working on ways to improve this drug and other types of drugs.

For bladder and other urothelial cancers, we have been instrumental in the development of several antibodies that can be used with and without chemotherapy. Sacituzumab Govitecan (IMMU-132), an antibody-drug conjugate, has had remarkable preliminary activity. It works by leveraging the immune system and bringing a powerful drug directly to the interior of cancer cells in order to kill them from the inside out. We are continuing to use this drug as well as other immunotherapeutic agents to improve outcomes for patients with these types of cancer.

Based upon several scientific properties, prostate cancer is a good tumor type for immunotherapy, and in fact, the first therapeutic cancer vaccine (used to treat cancer rather than prevent cancer) was approved for prostate cancer. At Weill Cornell Medicine, exploiting the immune system remains a focus in fighting prostate cancer, with a number of ongoing and upcoming clinical trials. Weill Cornell Medicine continues to be a worldwide leader in work with monoclonal antibodies, which are proteins (like a “key”) that very specifically target cancer cells (with a specific “lock” that is not present on normal cells). In particular, our work with antibodies against prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA) has led to the development of several targeted therapies for prostate cancer. These antibodies can be linked to powerful radioactive particles or drugs that seek out prostate cancer cells (like a smart bomb). For men with prostate cancer whose PSAs rise despite hormonal therapy, we are leading a study of targeted radioimmunotherapy that aims to prevent metastatic disease. In addition, the antibody itself may be able to generate an immune response in prostate tumors and lead to clearance of circulating tumor cells. We are also working on developing vaccines for men with rising PSAs following surgery or radiation.

We continue to examine many promising, cutting-edge immunotherapies through our robust clinical trial program. Click the below links to learn more about eligibility and open clinical trials across the spectrum of GU cancers:

Open Immunotherapy-Based Clinical Trials

Prostate Cancer

Kidney, Bladder and Urothelial Cancers

To search our complete list of our open clinical trials, click here.