Shhhh…do you smell that??

Cigarette smoke. I swear I can smell it.

I will walk into a room, and expect to see my dad handling an old-school no-filter Camel while doing the New York Times Crossword like a boss. No. He is not there. I walk into the next room thinking my mom is smoking her Marlboro Lights, drinking box-wine and watching Falcon Crest. No. She is not there. 

Of course they are not there. There are no overflowing ashtrays or yellowed walls. Just a ‘feeling’ more than a smell really. No one in my house smokes cigarettes. When this first started a few months ago, I asked my husband and my 20-year old son if they could smell it. Naturally they can’t. I also know if my son is smoking anything, it’s not cigarettes. 

As I run the diffuser filled with essential oils, I wonder if I am finally losing my mind. Probably. But not from this. 

I sit down at my computer and type in “smelling cigarette smoke after cancer treatment”. Turns out there is a phenomenon called Phantosmia. It’s an olfactory hallucination that causes you to think you are smelling odors that are not actually present. Upon further consultation with Dr. Google, the most common reasons phantosmia can occur range from allergies to migraines. 

Phantosmia can also be triggered by prescription medications and stress. Bingo. 

Let’s add Phantosmia to the list of side-effects I have experienced and endured in the wake of breast cancer, treatments, surgeries and prescription drugs to keep me cancer-free.

I have shared with you before that my body has experienced ALL THE THINGS. All the PHYSICAL side effects. But now let’s talk about the invisible side-effects. Things like crazy imaginary smells. And depression.

Depression. That’s another side-effect I NEVER saw coming. 

For months, I have been saying to myself, my husband and a few close friends that I am ‘in a funk’. Even my therapist never really caught on. I wasn’t being fully honest with her. How could I? I had no idea what was happening. 

I have been crying for days at a time. I can’t seem to find joy in most things that usually make me happy. I keep thinking this will resolve itself. I have tried all the self-care tips dumb Buzzfeed articles list: Take a walk. Take a bath. Read a book. Meditate. Do yoga. Light a candle. 

After months of feeling an overall mental malaise that has held on tighter than a bungee-jumper with a faulty harness, I discover I am in a full-on depression. I think I started to see it more fully when I got tired of lying and started giving a more honest answer to people when they would ask: How are you?

In fact, my son came home from work yesterday, looked at me and finally asked “Are you okay?” I could have given the ol’ “Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired.” Instead, I said “No. I am not okay. But I am working on getting better”. 

For about a week now, I have reflected on what I have been through in the past 1 ½ years, and it struck me that I never felt down or depressed after my cancer diagnosis. I handled it. I went through chemotherapy, surgeries, radiation and recoveries with determination and optimism. Yes, it was painful and I had some serious rollercoaster feels, but any of the lows I felt along the way never lasted beyond a few days.

But this? This feeling of blah and sadness? That is new. It took a while to take hold, as these things do. It has taken months for me to figure out the effect of going straight from my mastectomy into a full-blown pandemic has had.  I have been part of a collective trauma we have all experienced as a society. I have worked from home for over a year. I rarely see people in person. I have gone through some personal relationship losses. 

And I realize one more thing. When you are ‘actively’ handling cancer, you have people rally around you in force. Constant check-ins, text and social media messages, phone calls, emails and during non-pandemic times: visits. 

Then it stops. With the exception of your closest friends and family, the attention all but disappears. It is part of the cycle, I get it.

As I sit here wondering if my German Shepherd dogs are lighting up Winstons while playing poker in the next room, I think about what a friend told me once: Remember in the darkness what you know to be true in the light. I know I will get through this. 

I also want you to know if you are feeling depressed, or smelling random imaginary odors, you are not alone.