Studies show that our sense of smell plays a major role in how we feel, in our memories, and in our day-to-day decisions. Our ability to smell is the sense closest linked to memory. In fact, studies show that we can remember a scent with 65% accuracy after one year. It’s been more than a year for sure but I can still remember the incredible sweet fragrance of the delicate lavender flowers on my mother’s lilac bush, even though that bush died long ago. I also remember the scolding I received from plucking all of the blooms off that bush when I was around six! One of the best scents I remember was that of laundry after being dried outside. The clothes had such a clean scent, baked and sanitized by the sun and softened by the wind. No amount of laundry detergent or dryer sheets can duplicate that scent. I also remember the wonderful aroma coming from our kitchen when my mother made homemade jam. Grape jam was my favorite and our whole house would smell like a biscuit smothered in grape jam for days after jam-making. In the fall, the aroma of curing tobacco permeated our entire farm. It was a sweet earthy smell that connected me to the land and my family. I can still walk in those old barns and recall the scent clinging to the rafters as if it were yesterday. Scents are a part of who we are.
But not all scents produce pleasant memories. After loving many cats over the years, I thought that I had mastered the art of unpleasant smells! I’ll spare you the details. But nothing, not even those not-so-sweet kitty smells, can compare to the smells associated with chemo. And it’s not just the scents; the smells also are paired with unpleasant tastes. Accessing my port for each treatment requires that the area be prepped with an antimicrobial that smells like a cross between fingernail polish remover and fingernail polish. The odor takes your breath not only because of its veracity but because of the proximity to my nose. As soon as my port is accessed, there is this overwhelming salty bitter taste from the saline that is now coursing through my body. The smell of the antimicrobial combined with the saline taste makes me feel sick before I even get the chemo drugs. Now it is almost impossible for me to paint my nails because of the association of the aromas.
The odor-taste association carries over as the chemo is given. The chemo drugs cause an unpleasant taste sensation that I really cannot describe other than bitter to the point that I actually shiver from the taste. No amount of lemon drop candy gets rid of the taste. The Adriamycin was given IV push so every time the nurse pushed the drug I received another bolus of bitter taste. My new drug, Taxol, does not produce quite as intense of a sensation but my body still “remembers” the smell-taste sensation from the first drug. It is hard to get rid of such unpleasantness.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this whole ordeal is the “sixth sense” that I’ve developed. I can actually determine just by the sight, thought, or aroma of a food whether or not I will be able to tolerate it. Sometimes the smell alone is enough to give me a problem. Other times, I can just think about a food and my body will vote either yes or no. And, what I can tolerate changes from one day to another. Crazy, I know! There is no logic to this, only the nose knows!
Contemplating the role of scent in our memory processes, I am reminded of Psalm 141:2. David Haas sets this verse to music:
Lord, may our prayer rise like incense in your sight, may this place be filled with the fragrance of Christ.
Chemo, with all its assorted scents, is bringing healing to my body. As I pray, I imagine my prayers rising upward to heaven, slowly swirling and circling with a beauty that can only be “smelled” as they reach the heavenly throne. Your prayers, your cards, your gifts of flowers, lemonade, and food are a sweet fragrance of Christ that drowns out much of the unpleasantness and keeps me going. For all of your sweet heavenly “fragrances” I am most humbled and thankful.