Hello Mr. Pavlov

Pavlov’s research demonstrated something called a conditioned response.  It’s when a body has a response to a particular stimulus that happens as a result of the mind creating a connection between one thing, like a smell or a sound, with an event that occurred at the same time that the odor was detected or the sound heard.  

As a result of being intimately involved in Adrienne’s experience with chemotherapy, there are certain foods I can no longer eat.  It’s not that I don’t want to…one of them is chocolate for heaven’s sake.  I used to make chocolate icing from scratch just to eat it, so the not being able to stomach it is a very strong conditioned response.  Vanilla just doesn’t suit my personality and I’m way too young, at least at heart, to turn into my Mom just yet at the ice cream store.  Adrienne used to use Life Savers Mints to smother the horrible taste she’d get in her mouth when the final flush went into her port and now the smell of them nauseates her.  Both of us can no longer tolerate red meat, at least if it tastes and smells like red meat.  That’s one that could be argued is good for us and the environment considering how many cow farts have to happen for my steak to end up on the barbecue so I’m on the fence about the loss. 

Another one of those foods is pizza.  When Adrienne was going in for chemo on Tuesdays the treatment included steroids which ramped up her appetite so we routinely had pizza or a pizza-like meal like flatbreads for dinner because it was a long tiring day and those were tasty and easy. I did try to eat pizza once after treatment was all over, and it pretty much tasted like cardboard. It’s really a weird sensation. It’s not a matter of won’t, it’s a matter of can’t. It just won’t go in. Adrienne initially had the same reaction, but since she finished her once-every-three-weeks Herceptin treatments she has found she can eat it again. She says it’s an amazing thing to bite into the cheesy goodness and enjoy the taste, the flavors mingling in her mouth as she chews and swallows. I’ll admit I’m a little bit jealous. I would love to be able to bite into a warm chocolate brownie any day and enjoy it. Or a Kit Kat. And my Christmas stocking has turned into a barren wasteland now that my family can’t in their capacity as Santa’s helpers stuff it full of Turtles and Toblerone.

I know this is very small. I know in the balance of things not being able to eat foods I used to enjoy means nothing in the grand scheme of things and I would be willing to give up so much more if it means I get to keep my child. I only bring it up because like so many other big things it’s another cancer gift that keeps on giving. When people ask why I don’t eat chocolate, or red meat, or pizza, if I am to answer honestly I have to tell my daughter’s cancer story and that brings me right back to watching her choke down steak to keep her iron up so she could continue the treatment that was saving her life. I really don’t like to go there. And I can tell by the looks on their faces that they think I’m crazy. I’m thinking of starting to tell people “I’m a Cancertarian”, because maybe if it has a name they’ll just nod their heads like they do when they encounter anyone else who eats differently and they won’t want to know the details because they’ll think I’m trying to convert them.

It will be interesting to see what happens to me as we get further away from the experience. For now Pavlov has me standing in front of a display of sundae toppings trying to find some way to put some pizzazz into my ice cream experience, feeling my stomach turn as my gaze drifts over the variety of chocolate options I see there. That’s how powerful the impact of caregiving through a cancer experience can be, how triggers can permanently attach themselves to random things that you can’t see in the same way through the fog of traumatic memory. 

Since I can’t quite bring myself to explore Cotton Candy or Bubble Gum my ice cream choice is, as least for now, going to stay vanilla.  But cool Moroccan Camel-Rider Zorro of the South Vanilla. I’m not ready to let my grey hair show just yet.    

To read more from Debbie, click here.


Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California.  She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure.  When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed!  Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. 

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