Beating the side effects of blood cancer treatment, one meal at a time

Ben Macdonald at Cooking for ChemoThis Masterchef finalist knows a thing or two about food – and blood cancer.

Diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia while living in the UK, Ben Macdonald knows firsthand the effect that blood cancer treatment can have on appetite and taste buds. Ben shares his experience with chemotherapy and eating, and also offers a few tips for patients who might be currently going through treatment.

An orange a day keeps the nausea at bay

One of the first things I noticed that changed during chemo was my sense of smell. I could suddenly smell the hospital food coming long before I could see it – and not in a good way! When I was at my worst, the smell of food made me feel so ill that I would keep an orange by my bed. I’d break the skin and smell the strong orange peel so I wouldn’t have to smell the food.

My taste buds and appetite also changed. I found that during treatment I tended to favour simple flavours as I didn’t always feel like eating. When I did eat, I’d try to get as much energy into my meals as I could. Buttered toast was a lifesaver. I found I could eat it even when I felt terrible. Energy-rich foods like pasta, polenta and risotto were also great. I’d often add in cream, butter, cheese, olive oil and nuts for more energy.

Spice wasn’t so nice

One thing that didn’t appeal to me much during treatment was spicy food, which I usually loved. I steered away from Asian and Indian food to a degree. Occasionally I’d eat it, but I found it easier to manage dishes that weren’t so spicy, or didn’t have so many complex flavours.

Life after chemo

Once treatment stopped, my palate and appetite returned to normal quickly. More than 10 years on, my palate has maybe even developed more due to all my travelling and exposure to new foods. Now I’m working on my latest venture, Flavour Crate – it’s a food discovery service for discerning foodies. I also run private cooking classes and a supper club and recently helped the Leukaemia Foundation launch Queensland’s first Cooking for chemo session. It’s a brilliant concept and can help patients know what to expect – I wish it had been around during my treatment!

What I learned

If you’re currently going through treatment, I’d encourage you to just do your best. If you can’t eat, wait a little bit or try something bland instead. You’re better off having a few mouthfuls here and there than nothing at all – and sometimes this can really help with the nausea. Remember that food is the fuel that drives your body. You need that fuel to get through treatment! Eating the right things, when you can, will only help you feel better faster.

Check out Ben’s Cooking for chemo recipes>>

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