Published on: 3 November 2023
Patients treated for head and neck cancer are helping others through a new cook book to help reignite their love of food.
Surgery and treatment can impact on the long term ability to taste, swallow and make saliva.
To help patients discover ways of enjoying food again, South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Sunderland have collaborated to publish a cookbook.
It has been supported by Sunderland Creatives, which is run by Creo Communications to give students paid work experience of working on real projects.
University of Sunderland students and representatives with patients, family members and the therapist who helped create the book.
The book was created with the help of patients, Maria Elliott and Keith Halling, both from South Shields and Claire Scott, from Consett. They stepped forward to share their experiences and create dishes alongside photography students.
The result was a series of images and studio portraits which were used to share their stories and showcase their recipes.
Teamwork drives on project
The group was supported by Beth Halliday, the patients’ Speech and Language Therapist, who led the project.
A test kitchen was hired at the Beacon of Light and once perfected, their meals were captured by the second-year students.
The images will help build up their portfolio of work.
Design student Liam Reynolds created the finished book, which features pasta dishes, soups, noodles and a dessert.
The book’s production was supported by the Trust’s Innovation Team. It was funded by the Head and Neck charitable fund, which is a strand of the Trust's STS Charity.
Copies will be handed to new patients as they start their own treatment and recovery journey. Having access to recipes and what foods to eat had been identified as a need by previous head and neck cancer patients.
"Many of our head and neck cancer patients can find they have issues with taste or swallowing after their treatment. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can take its toll, killing healthy cells as well as cancerous.
"It can take the enjoyment away from food. It can also lead to fibrosis, which is a stiffening in the throat that makes it hard to swallow.
"Having fast and effective treatment is essential for cancer patients, but it can be difficult. Lots of patients report finding it much harder to eat out, or eat-on-the-go.
"Having a book which includes recipes, but also gives first hand experiences of others is so helpful. It gives patients hope that they can enjoy foods again and they are not alone in the journey.
"The process of putting together this book was a delight. The patients and students came together with passion and enthusiasm that really rocketed the project off the ground.”
Helen McGhie, the university’s Senior Lecturer in Photography, added:
"We are delighted to be involved in such a worthwhile live project which has supported patients, whilst enhancing the confidence and creative expertise of our photography students.
"Over three-weekly sessions, the students worked with the patients in a socially engaged way by creating on-location cookery photographs and studio portraits that communicate personal stories through the impactful nature of images."
The cookbook was launched at an event hosted by the University of Sunderland.
Kasey Taylor, a third-year photography student who contributed images to the project in her second-year, said:
"Working on this cookbook has been the experience of a lifetime.
"Meeting new people and hearing their stories has been extraordinary. This opportunity has given me a stepping stone to building my portfolio and enhancing my photographic skills."
Inspiration behind the stories
Keith Halling, Maria Elliott and Claire Scott with their cookbook and Speech and Language Therapist Beth Halliday.
Maria has spent her career supporting young people, including as a foster carer for children who have experienced trauma and has served as a magistrate.
The 63-year-old, is married to Bob, 65, a retired learning and development manager for Durham County Council.
She was diagnosed in March 2020 with cancer in one of her tonsils and in a lymph node. She underwent a 12-hour operation and 30 rounds of radiotherapy.
"I think this is very powerful because it’s through the eyes of the patient. We know our experiences and have come through it. I hope we can help because we can say we’ve tested it.
"This has been not only a therapeutic project to be involved in, it has also been a wonderful experience working with students and members of the Head and Neck department to produce a go to booklet for forthcoming patients.
"It has been humbling to pay forward toward others."
Claire, 61, retired from her role as a bank clerk a month before the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic and was diagnosed in June 2021.
She had ear ache and a sore throat before she developed a lump at the base of her tongue, with the cancer also found in her lymph nodes. She underwent 30 rounds of radiotherapy and one of chemotherapy.
She needed a feeding tube during treatment and now struggles to taste sweet foods, while her ability to enjoy savoury flavours can change.
Claire, who is married to Barry, 57, and has two children, said:
"Eating for me now is a mechanical process. I used to be a big foodie. I loved to cook and now eating is a chore.
"Beth asked me if I would get involved because by that stage I was experimenting with what I could cook and enjoy again. Being part of this has been an unbelievable experience. I enjoyed it so much and I know it’ll help other people.
"It was also good to meet other people who had gone through similar experiences and share hints and tips.
"We got to compare notes as we’re all at different stages of our recovery."
Keith, 73, a retired legal manager, is married to Tricia. He was diagnosed in 2018 when he found a lump on the side of his neck and it was later found in a total of five locations.
He underwent 30 rounds of radiotherapy, six of chemotherapy and an operation. He continues to have issues swallowing and has to eat soft foods, while the change in his taste means he can no longer enjoy a cup of tea.
"I feel very protective of the NHS and I must say my experience has been wonderful from every person I have seen.
"Beth was among those who has been great and after my op and radio and chemo. She’s helped make it fun trying to change what I’m eating. Now we know we’ll be helping other patients who have got the same problems."
Helping the next generation develop
Laura Farley, agency manager at Creo, which leads Sunderland Creatives Agency, said:
"We are delighted that Sunderland Creatives Agency was able to play a part in making this cookbook a reality.
"It was a fabulous opportunity for our talented student cohort to work on a project that we are certain will make a real difference to the lives of people undergoing treatment for cancer."
Anyone interested in accessing the cookbook can ask their Head and Neck Cancer Team.
More details about the STS Charity can be found by clicking here.