Health Services, Research and Clinical Trials,

The link between loss of taste and head and neck radiation

A serendipitous dinner between two Latrobe Regional Health workmates has led to a research project which has found a link between dysgeusia – or loss of taste – and radiotherapy for people with head and neck cancer.

LRH speech pathologist Beth Lane and pharmacist Kayla Gallert have found many head or neck cancer patients report food or drink either tasted metallic or bland as a result of radiotherapy.

Their research abstract was selected to be presented as a poster at the Doctors for Regional Innovation, Vision, Excellence, Research and Scholarship (DRIVERS) conference in Bendigo.

The two carried out a retrospective audit looking at data from a 12-month period in 2022 involving 27 oncology patients who had been treated with radiotherapy at LRH.

They used a specific dysgeusia score from the Common Terminology Criteria for Adverse Events system and looked at weight pre-and-post therapy, levels of radiation and the site of treatment, using a multidisciplinary team approach.

“We found almost 60 per cent of patients we audited experienced a taste change, but only around 30 per cent of patients received counselling specific to dysgeusia,” Beth said.

“For most patients it does resolve in time depending on how much treatment they received or where they had it. But in other patients, their taste may never resolve.”

Beth said dysgeusia could affect a patient’s appetite or impact their pleasure with eating and drinking, however, other researchers are looking at restoring taste with natural remedies.

She said some patients could be advised about strategies to improve their taste sensation such as avoiding eating with metal utensils which can influence the taste of certain foods, or to experiment with different flavours or spices.

“I hear a lot from patients that this is a concern for them, but we wanted concrete data rather than anecdotes,” Beth said.

“The literature was scant in regional Victoria and it mainly focussed on metropolitan areas, so it was nice to gain some data in this niche area.”

The pair came up with the idea for the project while discussing ideas over dinner that related to both their speciality areas.

“Pharmacy and speech pathology are two areas that do not come together very often,” Kayla said.

“We know each other quite well outside of the workplace and I was glad to be able to work with one of my closest friends.”