Patience is the key to recovering the senses of taste and smell after chemotherapy, along with learning personal limitations and communicating with a doctor.

Teri Kuhn, former co-owner of Pillar Rock Vineyard in Yountville, also advises drawing on your memory bank of favorite flavors and qualities.

“Over time, you get your taste back again, but your mouth has done double duty during treatment. Gradually you are able to sit and savor fine wines,” said Kuhn.

Kuhn helped produce a Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon made on the grounds of Rombauer Vineyards between 1995 and 2011. Kuhn said she always knew when to stop drinking, particularly when she experienced pain in her mouth associated with chemotherapy treatment.

“(After treatment), I tried to steer clear of higher alcohol content wines that were herbaceous and too heavily oaked. It was then I truly appreciated Pillar Rock as a soft and supple wine that burst with fruit, black cherry, and currant,” said Kuhn.

Understanding what alters the senses

Cancer and treatments for it, including drugs and chemotherapy, can harm sensory cells in the nose, mouth, and gastrointestinal tract. Such changes may eliminate, reduce, or modify the senses of taste and smell.

Chemicals in cancer drugs as well as the effects of radiation can make it seem as if foods and liquids have no taste, a metallic taste, or a bad taste that makes it hard to swallow. Doctors advise against drinking wine during chemotherapy because alcohol interferes with the liver’s ability to metabolize the toxins in chemotherapy drugs.

After a cancer survivor completes treatment, their senses of smell and taste return gradually, usually within three weeks to two months. It can take up to a year for the sense of taste to be fully restored. The process can take longer or there can be permanent changes if cancer or treatments damage the salivary glands.

Lauren Ackerman, co-founder of Ackerman Family Vineyards in Napa, said going to a comprehensive medical appointment at the beginning of her treatment let her know what to expect.

“I learned all the aspects of how my life during treatment would be affected. Having close communication with my doctor became essential as each chemo session brought on new side effects. The doctors were more focused on getting me as close to a ‘cure’ as possible versus worrying too much about the various side effects afterwards,” said Ackerman.

Ackerman, who first started making wine with her husband Bob Ackerman in 1995, said her recovery from breast cancer took about a year.

“I think my senses of smell and taste changed a little bit, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. I was so focused on trying to make a full recovery that I had no choice but to stay positive,” said Ackerman.

Elaine Jones, co-owner of Jones Family Vineyards in Calistoga, said chemotherapy caused her to lose her sense of taste.

“Interestingly, my sense of smell was enhanced. I think it took over for my loss for taste. Although I did not drink at all during and after treatment, I could derive tremendous pleasure from just smelling wine. It really helped to be able to differentiate elements of the bouquet,” said Jones.

Taking time off

During treatment, it’s helpful to give other professionals on a winery team a chance to make decisions about taste and smell. Reducing stress can improve a patient’s mental and physical health.

Suzanne Pride Bryan, co-owner of Pride Mountain Vineyards in St. Helena, said when she was in treatment, Pride Mountain’s production team, including its winemaker, associate winemaker, and Pride Bryan’s brother, worked together to develop the flavor profiles for its wines.

“Suffice it to say there is never any shortage of willing and able team members to weigh in on sampling delicious wines!” said Pride Bryan.

Pride Bryan added during chemotherapy, her doctors asked her to drink as much water as possible to flush the drugs through her system.

“However, even water is unpalatable (and) metallic tasting. A trick recommended by my medical team was to put a splash of ginger ale into the water. Ginger is calming to the digestive track and helped to mask the metallic taste,” said Pride Bryan.

Pride Bryan said fortunately, the changes did not last and she fully recovered.

“Once the chemo ended, the metallic flat taste dissipated, (my) mouth sores healed, and food and drinks again were palatable. Yay!” said Pride Bryan.

Finding new favorites

Wine industry professionals and wine lovers who want to begin drinking again should do so when their doctor advises it is safe and their body feels ready. Pride Bryan said during treatment, the body is under assault.

“Specifically with chemotherapy, your body tells you what it needs or wants. Imagine yourself with a severe bout of the flu. The last thing that sounds appealing ... is a big glass of wine,” said Pride Bryan.

Yet many individuals in the wine industry who are accustomed to tasting or drinking wine miss it a great deal during treatment. Enjoying wine, especially with loved ones and colleagues, is such a part of everyday life that not having it feels abnormal.

Jones found the courage to try wine again a little over a year from the month that she started chemotherapy.

“The first wine I drank was Gargiulo Vineyards’ G Major 7,” a red blend of five different varietals, said Jones.

“It had very little tannin in it and was so delicious. I remember looking at my husband and being shocked. I said, “Wow! I can actually taste this!” To this day, that wine is one of my all-time favorites,” said Jones.

Pride Bryan said her advice to cancer survivors is to seek psychological counseling, if it helps.

“When you return (to the winery from a medical leave of absence), you will be grateful. The sun shines brighter and the wine tastes even better. Keep the faith,” said Pride Bryan.

Ackerman said finding a support group, particularly of local mentors, is also uplifting.

“We (cancer survivors) become part of a community, in which we’re all there for each other. Look for an angel network that will help you understand you are not “a cancer patient.” You’re a person who happens to have had cancer. Together, we can look forward, be positive, and manage what is possible on a day to day basis,” said Ackerman.

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