Mysterious Ways: Sniffing Out Danger

Her brother-in-law's sharp sense of smell was a godsend for a recovering cancer patient.

Posted in , Sep 7, 2012

A fearful woman bows her head in prayer

The diagnosis. The mastectomy. Reconstructive surgery. Everything about my breast cancer had been rough, but by far the worst part was the fear. Even on good days it never quite went away. Sometimes all the stress made me light-headed.

It was getting to my husband, Alton, too. Normally he was a pillar of strength and health, but lately he’d been getting bad headaches.

I’d tried to hold on to the hopeful news from my previous checkup. “It looks like the surgeon got everything,” Dr. Pittman had said. “The new breast tissue looks healthy.” But now, as he reexamined me, my fears returned.

Dr. Pittman studied my skin for longer than usual, frowning. That couldn’t be good. He finally looked up. “I can’t believe I’m asking this, Freida, but have you been smoking?”

“I’ve never smoked in my life!” I said.

“Anyone been smoking at home?”

I shook my head.

He looked perplexed. “The reconstructed breast looked fine right after surgery. Now the skin has turned gray, indicating exposure to something like smoke, affecting the blood supply.”

The room spun. “Is it the cancer?”

“No, but the discoloration could mean the new tissue is dying. I want to see you again in a few weeks.” I went home more fearful than ever.

The next day Alton’s brother, Bob, came by. “How are you?” he said.

“Pretty well, I thought, but…” I told him about the skin discoloration and what my doctor had said about smoke.

Bob sniffed the air. “It does smell funny. Not like smoke. Something else.”

Neither Alton nor I had noticed anything. Still, I called our heating company. They sent a repairman at once.

“Good thing you called,” the repairman said. “You’ve got a natural gas leak that’s giving off carbon monoxide. A slow one like this might only cause headaches and dizziness, but if it got any worse...” He didn’t need to say more.

I didn’t think I could feel more grateful. Till my next checkup, that is, when the doctor examined me again...and couldn’t find anything to be concerned about. “The new tissue is completely healthy,” Dr. Pittman said. “It’s like that discoloration was never there.”

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