Changes to sense of taste and smell in cancer patients

Changes to the sense of taste and smell are a common side-effect experienced by patients being treated for cancer. The HungerNdThirst Foundation has now signalled a possible negative impact on patient recovery and quality of life, due to the effect these changes have on food intake and food preferences. The foundation is focusing its attention on finding ways to improve the sensation of taste for cancer patients (and ex-patients) by modifying food, for example. The foundation has asked the Science Shop to help answer certain research questions in order to provide patients and care professionals with suitable practical information on taste and smell changes and the impact of these changes on nutrition.

For many people, daily meals are a social event. But if changes to your sense of taste or smell mean you can no longer enjoy your food, the social context will inevitably change too. Being unable to taste, or tasting things differently, changes the entire experience of eating

The changes in the sense of taste and smell in cancer patients are usually a temporary side-effect of cancer and/or the treatment. That’s why the foundation is keen to uphold the idea of eating ‘normal food’. In other words, it wants to help patients to experience a normal taste of food within their common diet as much as possible.


Within the various subprojects it appeared that the prevalence of changes in smell and taste is high in cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy, which makes it important to discuss smell and taste problems in the daily care practice. Tailor-made solutions for the patient are needed, with a focus on taste perception and tasty food, instead of eating because it has to be done.

In practice it proves difficult to have cancer patients eat well and tastefully. That is why it is important to translate the available knowledge into practical solutions that can be used in the daily care practice and in the daily life of the patient. More research into the validation of available tools for the daily care practice can also contribute to the improvement of the care surrounding olfactory and taste changes in cancer patients.

As a result of the project, four fact sheets were drawn up: for doctors, nurses, dietitians and the patients themselves. These factsheets (In Dutch) contain information about smell and taste changes and practical tips and advice. With these factsheets we hope to give patients and caregivers the tools to continue making healthy choices during illness and treatment, despite smell and taste changes. This allows the recovery to be promoted and patients can continue to eat tasty for a better quality of life. The factsheets can be found on the Dutch part of this webpage.