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.