If you were to ask me what chemotherapy was like, I'd probably tell you that it tasted of Rhubarb and Custard boiled sweets.
After spending around six hours in a rubbery recliner as pink as the candies themselves, being drip-fed all sorts of IV bags, I'd be ferried out to the hospital's car park and my parents' hatchback and plied with a carrier bag "just in case.” It's a long-old drive from the hospital to my parents' house - and longer still when your veins are heaving with noxious chemicals. I'd close my eyes, lean my head against the cool glass, and imagine the drizzly London streets of December, January, and February drifting past until they're replaced with the leafy winding roads of the home counties.
The whole way, I'd be sucking on Rhubarb and Custards; pushing the sweets around my mouth and letting the coarse sugar exterior grind against my sore gums and fizzing tastebuds.
It felt fantastic.
By the time we'd arrive in Sussex, it was probably dark. I'd have finished the whole bag, and only then would I be ready to open my eyes and head inside.
It’s not uncommon for chemotherapy patients to fall out of love with food when going through treatment. Things don’t taste right; certain textures feel repulsive; the activity of eating is just too exhausting. I know people who survived solely on ice lollies and cold toast for the first few days after chemo. It's a thing. We've all been there: sometimes, when you're sick, food feels inconceivable.
It’s this unreliability that turns the basic pleasure of eating into a precious currency: the things I could bring myself to eat, the things that left me repulsed, the things I was barred from eating because they could either affect treatment or make me sick. I could no longer stomach my usual staples of builder’s tea, carrots and hummus and camembert or brie. Instead, I was constantly learning and rediscovering foods that, before chemo, had left me unbothered.
Eating became brand new, and sometimes risky. My hunger would go through the roof or shrivel away entirely. It was like I was making entirely new connections with anything that touched my plate – sometimes this ended in me pushing the bowl away, but sometimes a new pleasure would be discovered, and it was like striking gold.
The frigidly cold Ben & Jerry’s that was the only thing I could stomach on my 23rd birthday, taking so long to eat, the sticky, cake batter-flavoured cream slid down the length of the spoon and all over my hands as I watched terrible films under a blanket with my best friends.
The little brown plastic bottles of ginger beer you can get from M&S Food Hall, which I’d often send my housemate off in search of around the time my second bag of drugs was attached to the IV drip. Ginger is meant to have stomach-settling qualities, but really, it was the combination of bubbles and fiery warmth that made my mouth feel like something other than a washed-out old dishcloth that brought on the craving every time without fail.
Pesto. Pesto on everything. Its salty edge was the only thing my mouth could taste without being interrupted by a minty sensation, some days. I’d eat bowl after bowl of boiled carrots, grated cheese and pesto – a combination so wrong but so perfect that I still sometimes make it when I’m feeling delicate or sorry for myself.
Food *is* memory: you remember the flavours of the birthday cakes your parents made for you growing up, that incredible ice cream you had on the beach on that one holiday, the drunken kebab feast you all piled in on after the best night out with your friends.
The good and the bad, these snacks and meals become part of your food identity. The foods that light you up when you see them for the first time in a long while. The snack your loved ones always pick up from the corner shop when they see it because “it just reminds me of you.”
The first time I ever attended the chemo unit, I went along on my own. I'd just about managed to force down a few mouthfuls of porridge that morning, despite my jangling nerves, and my parents were running late. By the time I’d had all my tests, been fitted with my first cannula and attached to my second bag of chemo, my mum erupted through the door, carrying a huge supermarket shopper.
The nurse brought her over and there was a fuss about getting her a chair. After the removing of her coat and asking whether I needed some water or a tea, she started rifling through the shopper.
“I wasn’t sure what you’d fancy, so I brought everything,” she muttered to herself as she waded through its contents. Six-packs of Pombears, Ready Salted, Cheese and Onion, Salt ‘n’ Shake. I’m pretty sure there were some crispbreads and even a Pop Chip in there, too. The cascade of rustling coming from this bag was starting to attract glances from the people at the nearby chairs. I was totally mortified. My mother had brought enough crisps to ply the entire outpatient wing.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realised that bringing just about all of the crisps in Tesco Express was the only thing she could think to do for me in that situation. She was helpless. She couldn’t make me BETTER, but she could offer me the fleeting joy of a packet of Walkers Ready Salted, nibbled carefully and thoughtfully as an excuse to pass some time.
The shopper of crisps was a talking point, at least. I started chatting to a guy and his brother in the next chair to me – it turned out we were having the same chemotherapy for the same cancer. We had a giggle over the outpour of crisps now taking over my section of the unit, before he timidly asked for a packet of Pombears (“I haven’t seen those in years”) and my mum almost fell over herself to comply.
When you’re ill, food becomes a currency between the sick and the caregiver. Sometimes it’s the only thing they can offer. I look back at my best friend running off in search of ginger beer, my dad with a bag of Rhubarb and Custards stuffed into his coat pocket, my mum and her shopper of salty snacks, and my heart bursts.
I’m in remission now – and so is my friend from that very first chemo session. It’s been over two years since I finished treatment. There are plenty of foods I still can’t face from those days (sorry mint imperials and ginger beer), but that doesn’t mean I love them any less. I still carry them round with me – and you best believe, if you were to ever offer me a Rhubarb and Custard, I’d never be able to say no.