Cancer Triggers

by Jennifer AnandAugust 14, 2019View more posts from Jennifer Anand

I was sitting in church, intently listening to the sermon, when that familiar tickle hit my throat.

You know the one.

Somewhere on the side of your throat where normal swallowing won’t reach. Followed by an intense coughing fit, which for me will be followed by loud gagging sounds. All of which will echo through the acoustically perfect auditorium which is currently dead silent except for the pastor. I tapped down the sibling line, asking for a piece of candy.

Dan asked Ruth, who asked John, who asked Dave, who procured a small, foil wrapped piece of gum from his pocket and held it out. I hesitated a moment, then decided my embarrassment could possibly be saved by this tiny minty being.

You see, I haven’t chewed gum in 6 years.

Directly before my transplant, on the worst chemo of my life, I couldn’t/didn’t eat. I chewed gum 24/7 for about six weeks. Winter mint, peppermint, and spearmint all made their rotations. The Extra! Dessert gums had just come out, so apple pie, root beer floats, and watermelon also graced my palette. I felt a bit like Violet in Willy Wonka, eating through each delicious course of a meal. I’ve been offered gum numerous times since then, which I usually try to brush off with a simple “I don’t chew gum”.

But today, to save my coughing soul, I figured it’d be fine. Six years- surely that was long enough!

I popped the gum into my mouth and began to chew. And suddenly my stomach spasmed. My mouth filled with that pre-vomit saliva, and coughing was no longer my top concern. Even though my mind was fine with it, my body wasn’t. My stomach was knotting, and I began my please-don’t-vomit-breathing. I quickly put the gum back in the paper, and tried to focus back on the sermon.

But it shocked me that my body still remembered that trigger food. And led me to think about my other trigger smells and foods.

Growing up, my siblings and I loved the Green Giant canned cream corn. It had a gooey sauce around it (full of sugar I’m sure), with little pieces of corn. We’d devour the can, half of us liking it cold, and the others warmed up. Either way, it was a favorite treat to our little band. On transplant day, I was told that my returning cells would smell like creamed corn. My senses were so overloaded with hand sanitizer and the hospital cleaners I laughed them off. I’d welcome a good food smell for a change!

Yeah, no. I haven’t eaten creamed corn since that fateful day, and probably never will. Sad times.

One other trigger food was the vanilla hazelnut latte from Einstein Bros. Coffee. There is a cafe stall in the hospital atrium. My Monday ritual for the better part of the year was to stop there with my dad (who took me to the hospital every week). We would stop, buy a large coffee and one of those cinnamon twisted pastry deliciousness things. Then we would go upstairs to oncology, and settle in for the day. The cinnamon goodness was happily dunked in the warm coffee, and was one of my favorite rituals. If we were running late in the morning, dad would run down a few hours later and return with the beloved drink.

In college that fall, I was walking down to tutoring in the library, when I was hit with a wave of nausea. I was in the happiest place of my life- why the heck was I feeling sick?! It happened every time I returned to that library. One day, I went to a study room on the main level, rather than my usual basement and all the pieces fell together. Right off the library lobby was an Einstein Bros serving their coffee drinks. And those smells triggered me.

I could keep telling you the many other things that still trigger me, so many years later. Lemon heads, hand sanitizers, even some Capri Sun flavors all hit the list. I should’ve eaten more cakes and pies during treatment, so maybe I wouldn’t have such a taste for them now! My nurses have told me stories about kids who instantly puked upon sight of a nurse at the mall, or at a bill board on a field trip, both years after chemo. One of cancer’s many gifts that keep giving is the triggers on items we so enjoyed once upon a long lost time. I’m sure there is some mental retraining therapy out there that can one day help us.

But for now, two thoughts for you on theses triggers:

  1. Accept them. They’re going to be different than mine, but I know you all have some. Tell your friends and family what those items are and ask them to limit giving you/using those items around you. It sucks, but hey, it’s life.
  2. Own them. You’ve been/are in hell. Not liking certain smells, foods, or sights is 100% acceptable! Let people know that if they bring in that beautiful Polish sausage you were desperately craving an hour ago into your room, you’re gonna throw it in their face. Tell the doctors to wash their hands with the soap, rathe than the squeeze bottle hand sans.

Care to share what your triggers are?