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Old 04-22-2003, 02:34 PM
auntie em auntie em is offline
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Do sick people smell funny?

Twice in my life I've had conversations about The Odor of Sick People. And I don't mean "Jean's been in bed for a week and hasn't seen a bar of soap since Tuesday" odor, I mean an odor specific to the illness.

I mean, some maladies (leprosy, for example), seem like they'd come with a certain smell, but I'm talking about colds, or flu, or (as was the topic of today's discussion) cancer.

One of my dear friends from high school swore back then (and still does) that she can smell colds and flu. Even if the person wasn't exhibiting symptoms yet, if this girl said, "I smell a cold," while in an enclosed area (say, a car) with the person, chances are that person would be slurping NyQuil before the week was out. Furthermore, she could tell the difference between the smell of a cold (which she said was sort of bitter) and the smell of the flu (which she said was sort of sweet). Once, she said, she got a whiff of something totally unidentifiable, but she knew it was some sort of illness--and she ended up with measles.

Then today, I was talking to Coworker #1 about Coworker #2, who has had some health problems that she refuses to disclose to us (not that she has to or anything, but it's a small office, and we're all pretty good friends, so it's weird not to know what's going on with her), and who is out of state right now for medical testing.

Coworker #1 said that lately he's noticed The Odor of Cancer when he's around her. When he was young, he had a teacher who had cancer, and the smell got so bad that kids started refusing to come to her class (eventually she was no longer able to teach because of her illness). Coworker #2's odor is not that bad, he said, but is noticeable to him and he definitely identifies it as Cancer Smell.

Me? I haven't smelled a thing . . . I don't think.

I have noticed that lately I can't stand Coworker #2's perfume; frequently she comes into my office in the morning to chat while I'm scarfing down my breakfast, and the smell was so bad I couldn't eat (it made my throat catch). Sometimes she'd start to leave, get out the door (Thank You, Sweet Jesus, I'd think), and then come back to say something else, and it would make me want to cry. But how do you ask someone politely to leave your office because their stench is killing your appetite?

Anyway, that's all I've noticed about her smell, lately, but I think it hardly counts, because:

1) I HATE the smell of perfume

2) In fact, there are a few bottled scents that make my throat catch (so the fact that this is a recent phenomenon could just mean that she's switched from Giorgio to Chanel No. 5) and

3) Once the coworker's perfume wears off later in the day, I'm fine.

Anyway, I was just curious as to whether anyone else out there is able to identify (a) that a person is ill, and (b) the nature of the illness, by scent.

And is it freaky that I DO NOT have this ability, or freaky that you DO?
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  #2  
Old 04-22-2003, 03:00 PM
Jenaroph Jenaroph is offline
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My dad swears he can smell when my mother is getting a cold. I've never questioned this, he's never been wrong.

I've read that odor in general used to be much more widely used by MDs in diagnosing certain illnesses. (Don't have a cite for that, sorry. Read it something like 10-15 years ago.) It's just more scientific and proof-positive now to use bacteria cultures and blood tests, I guess, than trusting the human nose.

It's not an unreasonable guess that specific types of bacterial infection would have their own distinctive odors, is it?
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Old 04-22-2003, 03:03 PM
carnivorousplant carnivorousplant is offline
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I can smell mine and others cold. A sharp, penertrating odor, mildly unpleasant.
BTW, I also hate perfumes and aftershave.
Maybe we're special!
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  #4  
Old 04-22-2003, 03:14 PM
auntie em auntie em is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Jenaroph
It's not an unreasonable guess that specific types of bacterial infection would have their own distinctive odors, is it?
No, it's not, really, but why don't I have it, dammit?

I guess for the same reason that my SO can't smell much of anything (which we both appreciate when I've been eating bean burritos--I'm telling you, nothing cements a relationship for me than being able to fart with impunity).

[b]carnivourousplant[/i], can you smell a person's (or your own) cold before any obvious symptoms occur, or do you walk into a room, think, "Someone in here has a cold" and look for the guy who's sneezing?
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  #5  
Old 04-22-2003, 03:16 PM
auntie em auntie em is offline
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Oooh. Failure to preview stinks.
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Old 04-22-2003, 03:17 PM
Homebrew Homebrew is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by auntie em
I guess for the same reason that my SO can't smell much of anything (which we both appreciate when I've been eating bean burritos--I'm telling you, nothing cements a relationship for me than being able to fart with impunity).
At least that what he tells you.
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  #7  
Old 04-22-2003, 03:18 PM
auntie em auntie em is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Homebrew
At least that what he tells you.
That is my secret abject fear.
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  #8  
Old 04-22-2003, 03:21 PM
carnivorousplant carnivorousplant is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by auntie em
[B]
carnivourousplant[/i], can you smell a person's (or your own) cold before any obvious symptoms occur, or do you walk into a room, think, "Someone in here has a cold" and look for the guy who's sneezing?
I will notice when kissing Mrs. Plant before she has symptoms.
I have smelled it at conversational distances, but can't recall particular examples that I can verify. When I was a child it was distressing that food smelled like that just before I would become ill.
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  #9  
Old 04-22-2003, 03:31 PM
Balance Balance is offline
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I sometimes notice an odd scent around someone who is coming down with something. Colds (on the rare occasion when I'm not the first to catch them, rendering questions of odor irrelevant) do carry an acrid, salty scent--not exactly bitter, but not exactly sour either. The first warning I get of an incipient cold is when everything starts smelling sour to me. I also recall a sort of sweetish-sour scent the last time a friend had a case of the flu that I didn't catch. In a tightly enclosed area, I sometimes smell the odor of an illness on someone before any other overt symptoms manifest themselves. On a side note, extreme fatigue has a scent similar to a cold, but more sour.

Twice, I've noticed a very distinct odor in the presence of someone with cancer--breast cancer in both cases, and already under treatment; the smell reminded me of dirt and dead flowers. It's possible that it was related to the chemo.

It's not unreasonable to think that certain illnesses can change a person's scent. The condition need only change the composition of their sweat, either directly or by influencing the person's diet. If an infection is met with a fever, then the effect would be more pronounced due to the increase in perspiration.
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Old 04-22-2003, 03:35 PM
carnivorousplant carnivorousplant is offline
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I was just sitting outsice wishing for a smoke, and the cold smell is a combination of the way a smoker's breath smells and blood.
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  #11  
Old 04-22-2003, 03:53 PM
CrankyAsAnOldMan CrankyAsAnOldMan is offline
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I can smell when I have a sinus infection.

My son also smells very different to me when he is sick. It's a sourer smell than usual.
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  #12  
Old 04-22-2003, 03:57 PM
lieu lieu is offline
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The stomach flu would appear to have an associated odor.
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  #13  
Old 04-22-2003, 04:02 PM
auntie em auntie em is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by lieu
The stomach flu would appear to have an associated odor.
Yes. I've heard it's a lot like roast beef and mashed potatoes.
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  #14  
Old 04-22-2003, 04:03 PM
Margo Margo is offline
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I can smell when people have gas...

Margo
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Old 04-22-2003, 04:17 PM
Batsinma Belfry Batsinma Belfry is offline
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I once went to the doctor with a sore throat and coughing, as soon as he entered the room he said I smelled like strep. And yep, I had strep.
I can smell when someone has bronchitis.
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  #16  
Old 04-22-2003, 04:33 PM
tarragon918 tarragon918 is offline
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hmm.. interesting question, Auntie Em! My sense of smell seems (at least to me!) to be quite sensitive; I frequently sniff out something that's gone bad in the fridge long before anyone else in the family notices it, but I'll qualify that by admitting that my kids noses are definitely not as sensitive. I associate certain illnesses with particular smells/aromas, but that could be the treatment rather than the illness itself. I think Balance might be onto something with cancer patients--that "cancer smell" could be the result of chemo/radiation treatment. When I get a sinus infection or have a really bad cold, then I can't taste or smell anything, and it drives me crazy! LOL

Most perfumes/fragrances do not bother me, but patchouli makes me gag! I went to college in the early 70s and that scent was very popular with college kids then--some days, I gagged all the way through classes. It still affects me in that way.
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  #17  
Old 04-22-2003, 04:41 PM
chukhung chukhung is offline
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Apparently scientists are working on an "electronic nose" to help diagnose some diseases. From this article from Wired News, http://www.wired.com/news/technology...,31556,00.html
Quote:
Researchers in the UK have developed an electronic nose for sniffing out infections, borrowing from Chinese doctors' long-held sense for scents.

The Diag-Nose, invented by Drs. Selly Saini and Jan Leiferkus of Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, England, may one day become as common as colds in doctors' offices.

"The Chinese have done a lot of work in using the sense of smell to diagnose disease," said Saini, head of Cranfield's Centre for Analytical Science. "In Asia, a patient suspected of having tuberculosis would spit into a fire, which gave off a distinctive smell. There's a lot of evidence that a number of diseases give off a characteristic odor."
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  #18  
Old 04-22-2003, 04:55 PM
mouthbreather mouthbreather is offline
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"Do sick people smell funny?"

Well, It's funny when smelly people get sick. Is that the same thing?
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  #19  
Old 04-22-2003, 04:56 PM
DeVena DeVena is offline
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Mr Vena has a horrible sense of smell. But he can tell when I'm about to get my period by the smell of my breath. That always freaks me out.
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  #20  
Old 04-22-2003, 05:37 PM
neuroman neuroman is offline
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There are numerous documented incidences of dogs "sniffing out" cancer.
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  #21  
Old 04-22-2003, 07:01 PM
rowrrbazzle rowrrbazzle is offline
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"Do sick people smell funny?" Only sick clowns.
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  #22  
Old 04-22-2003, 08:00 PM
TroubleAgain TroubleAgain is offline
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I can testify that a diabetic whose blood-sugar DOES definitely have a specific scent. It's a body-chemistry thing. So I have no trouble believing that other body-chemistry-altering illnesses change someone's scent.
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  #23  
Old 04-22-2003, 08:22 PM
Dr_Paprika Dr_Paprika is offline
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Robertson Davies exellent book The Cunning Man has an interesting chapter on the role of smell in medicine.

Diseases known for their odor include liver diseases, abcesses, flesh eating disease (indescribable!), vaginitis, strep, sinusitis and urinary tract infections. Probably plus a whole lot more.
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  #24  
Old 04-22-2003, 08:53 PM
HelloKitty HelloKitty is offline
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One of my dear dear friends died of AIDS--wow, it's been 10 years ago now! One thing I distinctly remember about him was before he really became ill I always noticed a smell about him. Not necessarily a horrible bad smell...it was sort of a sweet smell in a way, like corn on the cob. Sounds weird, but I remember it to this day.
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  #25  
Old 04-22-2003, 10:21 PM
dwyr dwyr is online now
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One of the things I learned in Bacteriology, lo these many years ago, was that bacteria do indeed have different odors. Staphylococcus aureus smells "mousy" (that's what the lab manual called it; me, I've never sniffed a mouse so I dunno) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa smells just like grape kool-aid. I can't remember any of the others off-hand. They sort of discourage sniffing bacterial cultures in the lab nowadays. Although I can still tell a fermenter or anaerobe by smell.

(I also can usually tell if a blood alcohol is going to be high by smelling the serum sample. Is anybody impressed?)
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  #26  
Old 04-23-2003, 12:19 AM
SkipMagic SkipMagic is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Homebrew
At least that what he tells you.
<----- Me. Holding my nose and trying to breathe through my mouth so I don't, you know... smell anything.

The things we say to keep the boo-té coming. Ya' know?
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  #27  
Old 04-23-2003, 01:19 AM
juji_mojo juji_mojo is offline
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To answer the hockey I mean opening post question.
Yes.
And their smell changes for sure when they are dying.

More details hockey. I mean later.

sorry I cant be serious right now.
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  #28  
Old 04-23-2003, 08:06 AM
auntie em auntie em is offline
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Well. Now I feel slighted because I didn't get the Sickness Smell Magic. Really, about the only thing about a person (besides failure to bathe regularly, or overuse of perfume) that I can tell by their smell is if they have an odd and/or crappy diet (i.e., if they're from another country with vastly different foods, or if they just eat fast food constantly).

Some people smell like spit to me, but I have yet to figure out why.

I'll tell you one thing, though . . . I am fascinated by the Premenstrual Breath (PMB?) phenomenon outlined by DeVena. How does your husband identify the smell? Good? Bad? Garlicky? What?
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  #29  
Old 04-23-2003, 10:34 AM
SkipMagic SkipMagic is offline
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Quote:
Some people smell like spit to me, but I have yet to figure out why.
Seriously? Spit has an odor? Is it a strong one? I mean, if it isn't, how did you find out about the smell? Did someone spit near your nose? On your nose?

In your nose?

Weird. To me, that is; probably not to you either, auntie em (not that it isn't weird, just that it's not weird to you that it's weird to me, what with my almost total lack of smell-o-rama).

I just never thought of spit having any odor. Outside the spit containing chunks of leftover garlic or something equally... noticeable.
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Old 04-23-2003, 10:52 AM
Lizochka Lizochka is offline
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Oh man, I always thought it was just my hypersensitive nose! Glad to hear others can smell sickness. I find it kind of a sour, musky odor in general, with slight variations according to the ailment.

I can also smell when someone has recently been asleep, which is kind of an icky thing. There is definitely a spit odor as well, which can be problematic if I've started dating someone, kiss him for the first time, and discover that I can't stand the smell of his spit. :: shudder ::

Sorry for the slight hijack, but I have to know: can anyone else smell people coming? Not their perfume or b.o. or anything like that, but actually the essence of that person? I creep my boss out at work all the time because we'll hear the elevator ding down the hall, I'll sniff the air, and say, "Here comes Lloyd." I haven't been wrong yet.
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Old 04-23-2003, 11:13 AM
auntie em auntie em is offline
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It's just a . . . spitty smell, that I notice most often when my nose is near the person's mouth (you can make up the reasons), but sometimes it emanates from the neck/facial area in general, and sometimes (though less often) from the entire person.



There's a difference between the spit smell and halitosis, but in my experience, the spit smell is a precursor to doody breath if left untreated. My personal theory has always been that the spit smell is a result of slight dry-mouth. I dated a guy who took Ritalin, and it gave him horrible, foamy dry-mouth.

He also had a really strong spit smell.

Take that as you will, but I'm stickin' with my theory.
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Old 04-23-2003, 11:14 AM
auntie em auntie em is offline
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Oh, and FWIW, my mom knows the "spit smell" too, because as we were transporting my (at the time) new puppy, Ezra, to her new home with us, we both noticed that she smelled like her momma had cleaned her up for the trip.
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  #33  
Old 04-23-2003, 11:31 AM
Elret Elret is offline
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My sister and I have both noticed this phenomenon. Years ago, our grandmother's cat started smelling sort of strange and was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards. Only my sister and I had noticed the scent, and we didn't really think much of it until several years later when my cat started to smell the same way. Sure enough: cancer.
We've since noticed people on the bus or on the street with the same odour, but since we didn't actually go up and ask them if they happened to have cancer, that's not so much evidence as it is useless information.
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  #34  
Old 04-23-2003, 11:47 AM
SkipMagic SkipMagic is offline
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Truly, you have Joe Morton's nose.

Spit. Who would've thunk it?
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  #35  
Old 04-29-2003, 04:01 PM
chukhung chukhung is offline
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Well, I realize that this thread is old enough that it's starting to smell a bit all by itself, but I just spotted this article on Yahoo's Oddly Enough section: http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmp...th_prostate_dc
Quote:
Researchers from Cambridge University, England and the city's renowned Adenbrookes hospital are to apply for funding for a trial to use dogs to detect signs of the cancer
....
"We will train the dogs to distinguish the odor of urine from men with malignant prostate," Dr Barbara Sommerville, who is leading the research, told the Sunday Times newspaper.
As neuroman has suggested, if your dog looks at you funny after you take a whizz, it might be something much more serious than that asparagus you ate...
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  #36  
Old 04-29-2003, 04:28 PM
thatDDperson thatDDperson is offline
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The cancer smell thingy is pretty well known.

I don't smell it, but I work with a person who does.

And when I come back from chemo, she smells other cancers "on" me. She's accustomed to my cancer scent, but evidently each cancer smells differently.
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  #37  
Old 04-29-2003, 04:38 PM
Mommamia77 Mommamia77 is offline
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Yes sick people smell funny, I know because I have cancer and no one else has said anything but I can smell it on myself. This is the reason that I have come up with.
I have cancer of the adrenal glands, this messes with my hormones where I get fun side effects like acne and mood swings but it also gives me SUPER strength Body Odor.....if you can imagine!
Deodorant works but only for a few hours. So please my more husband who has been kind enough not to point out my BO!
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  #38  
Old 04-29-2003, 06:04 PM
thatDDperson thatDDperson is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Mommamia77
[I have cancer of the adrenal glands, this messes with my hormones
Wow, this must be the place for newbies with strange neuro-endocrine cancers.

I have carcinoid.

It pretty well sucks, huh?

Good luck with your treatments.
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  #39  
Old 04-29-2003, 07:03 PM
keturah keturah is offline
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I work with people suffering from squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck. I will never forget the first time I walked into a clinic room--when the MD and I walked out, he said that we had just smelled cancer. The smell is almost sickeningly sweet combined with musk. The problem is that I can smell it and notice the odor on people--and I know that it is a particularly rapidly spreading cancer so, I find it difficult to restrain myself from trying to warn someone with that smell.
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