My favorite chemo nurse, Pat, told me a story about running into a former cancer patient at the grocery store years after he'd finished his treatment. Delighted to see him, she approached him to say hello. He took one look at her -- and vomited. Despite his affection for his old nurse, the sight of her face, which he associated with chemotherapy, triggered instant nausea.
We've all had similar experiences: One of our senses sets off a memory surge that whooshes us into the past like a time machine -- a song that makes us feel again the flush of first love, a fragrance that whisks us back to childhood. For me, specific odors, flavors, songs, books and movies recall in a flash my experience of breast cancer:
- Whether I'm cleaning my computer keyboard or removing the gummy residue of a price tag, the smell of rubbing alcohol conjures up the chill of my port being swabbed for an infusion, and I feel again the fear of the poisons about to be poured into my veins.
- There's a wonderful peanut-butter-and-chicken soup in Jane Brody's "Good Food Cookbook." I used to love it. Now not so much. My husband used to make it for me after chemotherapy to stimulate my appetite and make sure I got enough fluids. Now the taste of it calls to mind mouth sores and the dreadful, deep lethargy of post-chemo malaise.
- Daniel Powter's song "Bad Day" seemed to be on the air 24/7 the year I was chemo bald. Most people I know hated the song, but I liked it. "You had a bad day" -- simple words, but they hit the nail on the head for me. I was having a bad day every day. Once in a while, I hear the refrain again and remember the misery of seeing my pasty face and hairless scalp in the mirror, the effort it took to face the world exposed like that, the comfort of singing under my breath, "You had a bad day/ You're taking one down/ You sing a sad song just to turn it around …"
- Two breast-cancer memoirs colored my experience, and a glimpse of their covers takes me back to my treatment year: Katherine Russell Rich's "The Red Devil" and Marisa Acocella Marchetto's "Cancer Vixen." Rich's memoir bookends the best-case/worst-case possibilities of breast cancer: living (good) with metastatic cancer (bad), while Marchetto's frolicsome comic-strip memoir takes place partly in my neighborhood, and her oncologist provided my second opinion. These were my literary sisters.
- "The Family Stone" was the big holiday movie event the year I was diagnosed. It was billed as a funny, feel-good family film. I couldn't wait to see it. None of the reviews mentioned that it's about a woman dying of breast cancer. Any work of pop culture that blithely uses breast cancer to kill off a female character (and there are a lot of them) returns me to that dark theater and my sickening sense of betrayal as it dawned on me that this so-called comedy was a tragedy and that my plight was a convenient plot twist. I hated -- HATED -- the movie. Just the thought of it makes me feel sick again.
Those are my keys to cupboards crammed with memories. What are yours?
Megan is a volunteer on SHARE's Breast Cancer Helpline.