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Cancer patients cook up ideas to enjoy food again

Sunderland Royal Hospital patients meet with Ryan Riley

A group of cancer patients at Sunderland Royal Hospital have been given the exclusive opportunity to work with food writer and Life Kitchen Founder, Ryan Riley to learn new ways of cooking that can help them to enjoy the taste and texture of food that can be lost during treatment.

12 patients undergoing treatment for various forms of head and neck cancer attended a special cookery class at Sunderland College where Ryan showed them how strong flavours and specific ingredients can help to overcome the damage done to taste receptors.

A large number of patients who undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy find that their sense of taste is affected or goes completely which can be very upsetting. Some also develop dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, due to the location of their cancer and the regions that the treatment is focussed on.

Ryan founded the Life Kitchen, which offers free cooking classes for people living with cancer, following the death of his mother to small cell lung cancer. He saw first-hand how treatment affected her love of food and so decided to set up the charity. He recently won The Observer Readers’ Award for Best Ethical Food Project 2018 and is keen to give back to his local community.  He has a keen celebrity following, including Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater and TV presenter and charity patron, Sue Perkins.

After being approached by the Speech and Language Therapy Team at City Hopsitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, Sunderland born Ryan agreed to work with some of the hospitals head and neck cancer patients who were suffering the after effects of treatment and struggling to eat and enjoy food.

The trust challenged Ryan to not only look at how he could improve the taste of food for those affected with cancer, but also the consistency for those who have difficulty swallowing. As a result the patients had the exclusive opportunity to meet with Ryan and attend one of his classes aimed at reinvigorating their love for food and teaching them how to experiment with flavours to make eating an enjoyable experience again. As well as watching Ryan, the patients were also challenge to cook themselves and made pineapple tacos with prawn, lime and coriander and marinated and roasted cauliflower and cauliflower leaves.

Ryan said: “Life Kitchen is what I do day in, day out, but this was always going to be a little different. As well as working in a different environment there are textural things to address here. Life Kitchen mostly focusses on taste and flavour. This is a unique situation and there have been some lovely moments. There’s been people smiling and it’s just been really amazing to see everyone get together. It’s a tough time for those with head and neck cancer, especially the eating side, so I am really pleased that I’ve been able to have a bit of fun with these guys.”

Barry Phillips, 65 from Consett, was diagnosed with cancer of the oropharynx which was treated by robotic  surgery and then radiotherapy. He struggles with limited taste and swelling. He has found the support of his wife, Hayley crucial to his recovery and they have been sought solutions from website such as Macmillan and head and neck cancer support forums.

Barry said: “With neck and throat cancer all your mouth, your saliva glands and your taste buds go haywire. Today has been very beneficial finding out about herbs and spices that can enhance basic food likes cauliflower and make it more appealing and make your taste buds actually pick up the sensations of these everyday foods that can normally be very bland. What we’ve done today has helped to make them more interesting. I think it’s brilliant that Ryan has put the time in to help people and is researching the recipes for our benefit. It’s important that someone cares about other people and their problems and how to solve them. So hopefully he will continue to be successful.”

Beth Halliday, Speech and Language Therapist in the head and neck cancer team and lead for this project, said: “Cancer treatment can have a debilitating effect on our patients and can result, in the short term, in very painful sores in the mouth and throat that can make eating an almost unbearable experience.  Longer term, treatment effects include tightness and reduced mobility of the muscles used to swallow, which significant limit their intake of food and drink, as well as the enjoyment of it. We can help with treatment and rehabilitation, but the psychological impact and effect on quality of life can be much more far reaching. Many of our patients find that their sense of taste is diminished or they simply struggle to swallow and the food that they once enjoyed is now bland and unappealing.

“The work Ryan is doing to transform how patients look at food is fantastic and we were really keen to work with him. Lots of people know about cancer, but few understand the many unpleasant side effects that patients have to endure as a result of their treatment. Enjoying a wide range of nutritious, healthy foods is key to recovery and rehabilitation and a way to help patients feel like they are working their way back to normal life again. Ryan totally understands this through the experience he had during his mother’s illness and we are so grateful to him for giving our patients this amazing opportunity.”

Sunderland College supported this initiative by offering to host the class in their City Bistro restaurant and training kitchens.

Rob Stewart, Curriculum Manager for Hospitality, Tourism and Engagement at Sunderland College, said: “We didn’t hesitate to offer our facilities for this worthwhile event. It was great to see our space used for such an important issue and for us to be able to educate our hospitality and professional cookery students about it.”

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