Part Two of my sensory tour, compliments of chemo.  Part One can be found here:

Sense of Smell

I am home from my second infusion of Taxol – my second type of chemotherapy drug and sixth infusion overall.  I have ten more to go.  Before they give me Taxol, they stop my immune system from rejecting the drug by giving me a concoction of anti-histamines and immune suppressants … and steroids.  So I come home ramped up on steroids and STARVING.  Which is a good thing since I haven’t eaten much in the last month due to hospitalization, mouthsores, chemo-killed appetite and a really grumpy tummy.

Today’s menu?   More than I have eaten in two weeks.

Coffee and Tea Biscuit.  Teriyaki Chicken with Rice and Vegetables.  Steak.  Potatoes.  Asparagus.  Yogurt and Wild Blueberries.  An Apple Turnover.  Tea.

It is now past 10pm, I’ve taken my sleeping pill and therefore have entered the Gremlin stage.  I cannot be fed or watered because I will fall asleep with food in my mouth.

Like smell, taste can evoke a deep emotional response within us.  Taste and smell are directly connected and work together to identify a flavor.

Think back to your favourite childhood dinner. What is it?  Mine is our traditional Turkey dinner served at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The recipe – God forbid – was never tinkered with.  Turkey with Sage & Onion Stuffing … that smell … Ohhhh that smell … would begin to waft out of the oven hours before the turkey was done.  Cranberry Sauce, Creamy Mashed Potatoes, Gravy, Carrots, and Green Beans.

If the women in my mother’s lineage wanted to change the recipe and try something new … well we just had to have turkey a third time to try it out.  One did not mess with tradition.

The first forkful into my mouth would be the stuffing.  My nose was signalling the tasty mix hours before.  I’d close my eyes and let each tastebud (50-100 cells) on my tongue and in my mouth collect the chemical composition of the stuffing. The cells would signal my cortex to pick out the five basic tastes:  sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umani (a savory, brothy, meaty taste).  The average lifespan of a taste bud is 10 days.

But your nose does so much of the work.  It’s your nose that can tell the difference between Mom’s Sage & Onion Stuffing and a box of stove top stuffing.  There are over 12 million smell receptors, which collect the molecules and send an electrical signal to the olfatory bulb I talked about in Part One.  Instead of five tastes, we have 450 different smell receptors, so there are millions of combinations.

If smell is our first sense, taste is our second.  The insular cortex – which is responsible for recognizing taste is connected to the amygdala and emotions.  But it is not connected to the hippocampus, which holds our memories.

Our brain regions for smell and taste tie the experiences to emotion and memory.  And why was this so important to our survival?  Foraging for food is risky business.  Is that red berry good for us or poisonous?  Children dislike bitter tastes – which are usually associated with more poisonous plants and berries.  It is a survival mechanism.  Has that food gone bad?   All you have to do is eat rancid meat once to know it’s going to make you ill.  And once that happens, that flavor can have a negative taste aversion firmly planted in your brain.  You are disgusted and nauseaous every time to smell it, see it or try to eat it again.  This can last for years so you don’t make the same mistake twice.

I’ll never touch Ouzo after a drunken teenage binge that came out my nose.  Or Thai Cream Curry chicken that I had for lunch after my first chemo infusion.  Other than that, I am a garbaage can.  The only flavor I am not overly fond of is cilantro.  I can handle it in small amounts in guacamole, salsas etc. but don’t sprinkle it librally.  Otherwise, it tastes like soapy, cheap Thrills.

Our tastebuds do change and mature as we age.  We develop a more sophisticated palate.  Asking your children to try new foods expands their tastes.  They try that bitter broccoli and their brain says “Yuck!  It’s bitter!  I hate this!  It’s bad!”  But we coax them to believe it isn’t bad and they begin to override the primitive brain centers with “higher function”.  The exact same thing happens when your son goes over to his girlfriend’s for dinner and eats platefuls of lasagna … something he hated since he was a toddler.  He doesn’t want to offend her parents and overrides the reptile.

But the good memories … oh the good memories of good food.  They are woven into the fabric of our table.  Rich, postive memories of family, food, tradition, safety, saiety, love.  These positive experiences enrich our survival as much as the negatives necessary for survival.

I have no appetite while taking chemotherapy because the cells in my digestive tract – mouth, tongue, stomach, intestines – replentish quickly and are therefore hit the hardest.  I probably just don’t have the taste and smell cells.  My queasy, nauseous stomach cells are screaming NO!  And we won’t discuss my intestinal discomfort.

My organs don’t disintigrate like my mouth – mouth cells live only two days hence the proclivity for mouthsores – because organ cells regenerate over months or years.  The longer I am in chemo, the more I break down.  Hair follicle cells are the same as my mouth … they live only for days.  Skin in 2-4 months.  My brain cells in my cerebral cortex neurons last a lifetime and will just leak out when they die.

It is the memories that I will struggle with as I push farther into the vegan world.  As an animal rescuer, eating vegan has always been a goal for me.  I try to maintain a mostly vegan diet, but admit that I find I felt better with some animal proteins, although we consume way more than necessary.  Since I had autoimmune disorders, I tried paleo diets.  It is not so much the meat that bothers me, but the life – if you can call it that – and death of the commercialized animal.

And I strive to remember Saying Grace & Giving Thanks for everything I eat.

However, there is some research that my Triple Negative Breast Cancer loves an animo acid in animal protein … it’s the sugar high of my cancer.  The more it gets, the faster it spins.  So once my body has repaired itself from the damage of chemo, I will go vegan again.

And my faith has always led me in that direction.  My body BEGGED me to go vegan just as my breast cancer began.  It knew.

Genesis 1:29-30 “Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.”

We were meant to be vegan.  Eating the apple wasn’t the sin.  Eating the damn snake was.

Bon Appetit,


P.S.  If you have the appetite for a sinfully sexual feast … read Wine Tasting from the Andrew* Diaries.

*Name(s) changed to protect the guilty!

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