Despite another week of weakness and sickness from chemo and illness, I managed to go for a leisurely walk with Carly and a friend tonight.  I was relieved to get out of my bedroom since I am spending far too much time sleeping away my days.  We walked along the lake at a nice, easy pace, enjoying the lovely summer evening.  The water level in Lake Ontario is unusually high due to all the rain, and there is more erosion of the shore and path.  Still, it was a beautiful walk just feet from the shoreline.  Storm clouds and a few rumbles of thunder seemed far enough away for us to safely continue our stroll.

Once home, I Annie took  out for her walk separately.  Together my dogs weigh only a few pounds less than I do, so I am finding it hard to walk them together while undergoing chemo for my breast cancer.

The rain started while Annie and I were out.  Not heavy, just the splatters of huge raindrops which foretell the coming of a downpour.  Both Annie and I turned our noses up to sniff the incoming air.  I was struck by how earthy the freshly fallen rain smelled.  The darkened sky and looming clouds told me an intense thunderstorm was imminent.  Flashes of lightning and booms of thunder could be seen and heard around me.  My body seems to electrify with the storm, with all senses and awareness firing.   I love a good storm, but that is easy to say when you live in a region not known to be targeted by nature’s destructive forces like hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes or tsunamis.  The Weather Channel reported a few cloud rotations spawning tornado warnings on the weekend but I am not sure anything made landfall.

I decided to research that distinctive “smell of rain”.

Did you know that there is a name for it?  Petrichor.  Constructed from the greek words for stone and “the fluid that flows in the veins of Gods” … how richly beautiful.  That earthy smell is from an oil extracted by plants, which becomes absorbed by the clays and sand in our soil.  Rain hitting the ground releases the scent of the oil and bacteria into the air.  Tonight I could also smell the ozone present from the lightning strikes around us.  Smelling slightly sulphuric, ozone is a form of oxygen whose name comes from the Greek word ozein to smell.

“Therewith Zeus thundered and hurled his bolt upon the ship, and she quivered from stem to stem, smitten by the bolt of Zeus, and was filled with sulphurous smoke…”  Homer, Odessey

80% of chemo patients report an altered sense of taste and smell during chemotherapy.  I assume it’s due to the cellular death or cellular impairment as chemo kills off healthy cells along side the killer cancer cells.

My sense of smell is heightened during different phases of the chemo.  Offensive smells – garbage, dog poop, something a little off in the fridge – are enough to send me running away to find the washroom while gagging.  It’s involuntary and completely overwhelms any ability to stand straight and not retch.  “I threw up a little in my mouth” is an unfortuantely common occurance these days.  Good smells like strawberries, chocolate fudge cake and apple pie can completely overpower me.  I’ve been off anything sweet since starting my chemo in April, with the exception of giant freezies.  Cold foods are tolerated better than hot foods. I’ve even eaten cold soup to minimize the tastes and smells, while still getting something nutritious into me.

Smell is one of our deepest and oldest senses … tied directly to our reptilian brain. Incoming smells are processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain to the old part of town.  It is directly connectioned to two brain areas which process emotion and memory … the amygdala and hippocampus.  No other senses – sight, sound, touch, taste – pass through these brain areas. Smell can trigger vivid emotions and memories, both happy and sad.  Trauma can be recalled in an instant with a triggering scent.  I have no doubt that Thai cream curry chicken will be forever tied to my start of chemotherapy.  I can never eat it again.

It makes it difficult to go out, especially if I want to keep special foods in the dinner rotation.  One whiff of the sizzling fajitas coming out of the restaurant’s kitchen can be enough to send me lurching towards the front door for fresh air.  The strongest smells, good and bad, are heightened to my altered senses.  Maybe some don’t even exist, but my dying nasal nerve ending cells are sending false positives.  Who knows.  Regardless, it makes me put on a mask when entering the hospital because the smell reminds me of isolation, loneliness, and Visiting Hours.

And based on my experience of tasting my own blood after chemo – thanks to a cut on the finger – I have no doubt I smell like a chemical cesspool of toxic waste.  It’s really an allround stinky situation to be in.

Insult to injury, my dogs did not smell my cancerous tumour.  Annie – the sniffiest dog I know – gave me no indication that something was afoot in my breast.  She is now lovingly referred to as a nose reject.

(Not) Smelling the roses,


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© Pink Dot Detour 2017

3 thoughts to “Sense of Smell

  • donotannoythewriter

    Wonderfully written…very heartfelt. Thank you so much for sharing an insight into what chemo patients go through and experience. I wish you the best of luck and the best of health for the future. Keep fighting!

    • the fox

      Thank you!

  • oceanswater

    I think it’s a little like having a baby and the labour one feels right then. I can’t recall if I had that issue with sense of smell or not. If I did, I have certainly forgotten… Anyway, if it is, then it gives you something to look forward to post chemo. Your writing is wonderful! Thank you!

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