It sounds like the stuff of fairy tales or a thing that could only happen in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Imagine a doctor writing the words “ice cream” on a prescription and ordering you to pig out.
This is one of those rare situations where imagination meets reality. According to a recent study, ice cream can be a valuable aspect of chemotherapy. The value extends far beyond sweetening an otherwise unpleasant experience.
A common side-effect of chemotherapy is oral mucositis (OM) — the painful inflammation of the mouth’s mucous membranes. Cryotherapy — the use of cold substances to reduce inflammation and numb the pain receptors — is the recommended treatment for OM. Traditionally, physicians have recommended that patients suck on ice chips or ice cubes. Unfortunately, many patients find the experience uncomfortable or downright painful. Consequently, many patients discontinue cryotherapy before reaching the end of chemotherapy. This, naturally, makes the cryotherapy worthless.
A team of Polish researchers (Marcin Jasiński, Martyna Maciejewska, Anna Brodziak, Michał Górka, Kamila Skwierawska, Wiesław Jędrzejczak, Agnieszka Tomaszewska, Grzegorz Basak, and Emilian Snarski) wondered what would happen if the ice cubes and ice chips were to be replaced with ice cream. The practice is far from new; it has been employed by pediatricians for years. In reviewing the available data, however, the researchers found scant use of ice cream for cryotherapy among adults.
The researchers provided ice cream to patients who were receiving high-dose melphalan chemotherapy. The ice cream was given “on demand” or as requested by the physician. Lest this sound too much like an afternoon snack for well-behaved kindergartners, they described the process in scientific terms:
‘The protocol consisted of 3 ice-cream doses chosen by the patient from ice cream commercially available at the hospital cafeteria. Patients received ice cream in the form of popsicles and dairy-containing products as well. The consecutive ice-creams were given on patient demand. Patients were asked to eat slowly, thawing the ice cream in the mouth. The compliance with the protocol was not measured. For the duration of neutropenia all patients received the same oral care which comprised of octenidine and calcium phosphate rinses.”
The concept may sound juvenile, but the results were surprising. Of those who received ice cream, only 28.85% developed OM. The control group that received traditional treatment developed OM in 59.09% of its patients.
The team reported their findings in “Ice-Cream Used as Cryotherapy During High-Dose Melphalan Conditioning Reduces Oral Mucositis After Autologous Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation.” It was published in Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 22507, (2021).
The researchers’ efforts also earned them the 2022 Ig Nobel Prize in the category “Medicine.”
Unlike most medical breakthroughs, the use of ice cream is not unpleasant, costly, or difficult in achieving compliance by patients. The researchers acknowledge, however, that because of the size of their study group, additional research is needed to confirm the results.
We suspect they will have no difficulty finding willing volunteers.
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