Please Don't Say You're A Blast From My Past

When I was in seventh grade, to write a paper on restaurant jargon, I sat at the counter in a luncheonette near my house. I ate a lot of rice pudding. Then I went home and got sick. To this day, I can’t look at rice pudding without feeling queasy.

A Madeleine moment

Food, and also smell, bring back memories, the good and the bad. I have to admit that I don’t remember much of what I read of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” but I do know that a “petit Madeleine,” a shell-shaped, miniature sponge cake cookie, opened a flood of memories (3,000 pages worth) for the narrator. If you go to Starbucks, maybe you have noticed these little French pastries packaged near the register. People buying them could have a “Madeleine moment” with their coffee or tea.1

You can have a “Madeleine moment” without a Madeleine. I had a “Madeleine moment” when I ate apricot jam that brought me back years to a high school friend’s kitchen table where we ate apricot danishes. It is just shorthand for a taste or smell making the past seem like the present. It generally has a positive connotation. But with cancer, most food- and smell-related memories are not so good. You could call them “stale Madeline” moments.

I get queasy if I see or smell chicken pot pie. I don’t mind the taste, but it transports me back to the three-and-a-half months in the hospital after my fourth stem cell transplant. It’s one of the only things I could stomach. I ate so much of it that I never wanted to see one again.

Why do smell and taste evoke memories?

Scientific and biological reasons explain why taste and smells evoke memories. I’m not sure if there is anything like it for words, except maybe “summer evening.” While those words conjure up good memories, one seemingly innocuous word does the opposite for me: blast.

What, you say? What is wrong with someone having a blast or being a blast from the past?

Not a thing if you look at the meaning in those sentences. But when a long-lost friend emailed with the subject line, “A blast from the past,” I thought of different kinds of blasts.

What are blasts?

Blasts are baby cells found in low numbers in the bone marrow. They are precursors to mature, circulating blood cells. In people with acute myeloid leukemia, like I had, the blasts go bonkers. They make copies of themselves. They fill up the bone marrow and prevent normal blood production. This can lead to the risk of bleeding and infection and even death.

Blasts are normally 1 to 5 percent of marrow cells. An AML diagnosis is made when 20 (or more) out of every 100 white blood cells in the bone marrow is a blast cell.2

My intake from 2003 after my first bone marrow biopsy probably has my exact number of blasts, but I don’t need to go back and find it. Just know that they were abnormally high. In subsequent bone marrow biopsies, I hung onto the percentage of blasts. Eventually, as they went down, I didn’t even like the sound of there being any, even though it was normal. I remember my doctor once said to me that everyone, including himself, has blasts. Somehow the idea that he had them calmed me down.

Now that they are normal (knock wood) the word “blast” still has bad connotations, though.

Do you have any words, smells, or tastes that bring back your cancer treatment?

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