Smells like…

The other day I had a big cancer flash-back. I was stopped in my tracks by a strong smell. Straight away it made me feel very sick.

This wasn’t a disgusting smell. It was actually what most people would consider to be quite nice and Christmassy.

It was a waft of cinnamon and it was coming from a bakery.

For me, this is the smell of chemotherapy.

It was just before Christmas, almost 11 years ago now, when I was first diagnosed. After surgery I spent what seemed like far too much time in the hospital’s chemo unit. The treatment took twice as long as it did this year. Luckily there’s a lovely café. Based in the glass roofed waiting area, it has an inviting aroma of freshly ground coffee beans and warm pastries with a hint of cinnamon.

I was told that it was best to avoid my favourite foods as they could become forever associated with chemo. It meant that if I had all the things that I shouldn’t really eat, then afterwards I wouldn’t want them. It was my kind of diet!

I began with a cinnamon swirl from the café. I experimented with other cakes and chocolate too. And I tried really hard. Despite my best efforts, once the chemo was over, the only naughty thing that I hated was the cinnamon pastries.

When I was treated again a few months ago, the cafe and the smell were pretty much the same. This time I stayed away from the pastries. Even so, cinnamon remains the most evocative reminder of my fight with cancer.

It’s not just this spicy scent of Christmas that I have a problem with. For a long time I couldn’t stand the smell of coffee. These days though I don’t find it too bad. I have a mug of proper coffee next to my laptop as I write this.

Of course, after all I’ve been through, I continue to despise that distinctive hospital smell.

During the first lot of chemo I also became very sensitive to herbs. It was thanks to eating a cheese and basil sandwich during my first ever session of chemo. After that I found the smell of all herbs far too strong to stomach.

So it was very unfortunate that when I moved abroad soon after cancer treatment I chose to live in places that loved dill and I mean they absolutely adored it. In Russia and Ukraine it seemed to be on everything. I even once found some stray dill on a fruit salad in a cafe!

At Besarabska, the most famous market in Kiev, the smell of dill was overwhelming. The roof of the indoor market kept the cold out and the smell of the devil herb in. If that wasn’t bad enough, as soon as you walked in, some of the old lady stall holders would thrust bunches of herbs at you, ‘young girl, try my delcious dill’ they would try to tempt me.

Euuugh, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to willingly eat that herb again.

Just like with food, there’s the potential that your perfume too could provoke bad memories. Almost as soon as I found out about the my illness I stopped wearing my favourite scent.

When I ended up in intensive care after the operation, I was so sick that I could barely move or even focus my eyes. All that seemed to work well was my nose. My sense of smell became heightened. It was strange how it was suddenly so incredibly powerful.

I was aware of everything. Shampoo, soap and hand cream. But especially perfume. I had to ask my family and friends to stop wearing it when they visited. I was so aware of almost every smell. Mostly it made me want to throw up. As I got better, my sense of smell started to go back to normal.

Now that the whole cancery ordeal is over, one of the things I’ve done to celebrate is to buy a new bottle of my favourite perfume. I love wearing it again.

It’s a sweet reminder that I’ve beaten cancer twice. This is the happy smell of success.

Good cold, bad cold

If you had to pick a time of year to have a chemocation then I suppose autumn/winter is perfect. A chemocation is rather like a staycation. Only this is no holiday at home but chemo enforced time off. And I can’t wait for it to be over.

Thanks to my incredible tiredness I’m still mostly stuck indoors. One of the perks of an A/W chemocation though is being able to have quality time by the log fire at my parents’ house. There are worst ways to spend an autumn afternoon.

But really I’d rather not be stuck indoors. Slowly I’m building up my stamina so that I can spend more time outdoors getting cold and wet.

The chilly weather means that when I do go out I can easily wear a hat over my shaved head and it doesn’t look out of place. I like my new number 3 hair cut but I’m not going to be showing it off in public anytime soon. That would just take too much energy. It’s less stressful to just blend in.

Raquel, Candice and very occasionally Barbarella are also helping keep me warm. I quite enjoy wearing my wigs. They still itch like crazy but over heating is no longer such a problem.

Ten years ago when cancer last made my hair fall out, it was all very different. Back then I told hardly anyone, I was so embarrassed. I didn’t even have a name for my wig. It was identical to my old hair. I didn’t like wearing it and I never realised how handy it would be on my travels.

I’d just moved to Moscow for the BBC and it was the very start of winter.

Snowy sunset from the BBC Moscow Bureau

Russia was properly freezing, exactly how you’d imagine that it should be. I’d wake up every day hoping that it had snowed overnight and often I was excited to find that it had. At times just being outside was painful; as you breathed in, the icy air would scratch your throat and made your lungs feel like they were on fire.

One Sunday afternoon, not long after arriving, I ventured out to a market on the edge of the capital. It was next to one of the furthest stops on the metro. On the way there I sat opposite a pensioner. The woman with dyed red hair was dressed in fur from head to toe. She eyed me suspiciously and then gave me a right telling off.

My crime? Not wearing a hat.

As way of an apology I said that I was English. I didn’t feel like revealing my lack of hair to a random stranger. However she was right to chastise me. It was so arctic outside that within minutes of getting off the metro, my mobile phone had frozen.

Yet my wig was brilliant. My fake brown bob kept my head beautifully warm.

These days I tend to wear hats a whole lot more, even when I’m inside. It turns out that my internal temperature gauge has bust.

I am officially cold.

All those evil chemocation cocktails are to blame. My body thinks that I should be around 35c. Unless I’m in a swelteringly hot room I tend to spend much of the time shivering. According to my hospital handbook, my temperature is a code red and I should alert the on-call oncologist straight away.

Ever since my cancer operation my feet have been a bit numb and never that warm. Now they are like blocks of ice. It’s like I’ve just come in from the cold after a day braving the elements in Moscow. So I wear thick ski socks at all times and I have a selection of hot water bottles which get a lot of use. Sometimes I sit in the living room wrapped in a duvet next to the fire.

But apparently my low temperature is nothing to worry about. The problem should just improve all by itself. In the meantime I’ve been told to wear lots of thermals. Here’s some freaky logic. It may be warmer inside but I tend to shiver less when I’m outside.

Maybe this is my body’s way of saying that I need to get out more as the chemocation is coming to an end.