Monday, April 11, 2011

Chemo Brain -- Myth?

Right from the beginning, as soon as I learned that I was going to be taking chemotherapy for my breast cancer, I started trying to learn everything I could about what would happen as a result; side-effects, in other words.  And one word that kept popping up was Chemo Brain.  Chemo Brain?  

What is chemo brain?

Here are just a few examples of what patients call chemo brain:
  • Forgetting things that they usually have no trouble recalling -- memory lapses
  • Trouble concentrating -- they can't focus on what they're doing, may "space out"
  • Trouble remembering details like names, dates, and sometimes larger events
  • Trouble multi-tasking, like answering the phone while cooking, without losing track of one of them -- less ability to do more than one thing at a time
  • Taking longer to finish things -- disorganized, slower thinking and processing
  • Trouble remembering common words -- unable to find the right words to finish a sentence
For most people chemo brain effects happen quickly and only last a short time, while others have long-term mental changes. Usually the changes that patients notice are very subtle, and others around them may not even notice any changes at all. Still, the people who are having problems are well aware of the differences in their thinking.

If anyone would like to read the entire article, click here.  The American Cancer Society uploaded it, so I suppose we can trust the contents. 

Anyway, I didn't notice myself having too many problems with chemo brain until after my fourth (and last) treatment.  For years Dwain and I have been having problems with memory lapses.  But so have many of our same-aged friends.  We just laugh at ourselves, compare stories and ask each other to remind us of commonly well-known objects, such as say... 

[This is my own true story]  I could not for the life of me remember what that thing was, and I needed it badly because I had a hangnail.  I said to Dwain, "I need...  uh... I need... oh, you know...?"  I tried to mime what it was by demonsting near my distressed fingernail.  He looked utterly confused.  I needed something feminine and it's a man I'm talking to, right?   I tried again. The word just would not come to me no matter how hard I tried.  Then I said, "You know, it's like a tiny ruler with sandpaper glued to either side.  I used to have them all over the house"  Aha!  Dwain's eyes brightened.  "You mean, a fingernail file?"  YES! YES! YES!  

This event and events similar to this happened to both of us all the time BEFORE chemo ever became a household term.  So I can't blame the chemo for everything.  However...

It all started with my cell phone after my fourth chemo.  Monday (after chemo) I got away from the house and forgot my cell phone, but I was not at work.  Okay.  No big deal.  That happens to people all the time.  It happened again on Tuesday, but I was at work.  I was a little frustrated when I called Dwain from the circuit clerk's office to explain.  Wednesday I got to work (an hour away) before I realized that my cell phone was not with me.  I had to call Dwain from my bosses land line and tell him that he would not be able to reach me because guess what?  Thursday I put my cell phone into my purse first thing!  But somewhere between leaving the house and getting to work it left my purse and landed on the kitchen bar where it remained until I returned home and asked it how it got there.  

Follow me, if you will, into the next week (if I don't mention a day, it means I remembered my cell).  Tuesday, I dropped my cell phone into my purse; by golly! it would remain there until I got to work.  Dwain helped me load the car with my court reporting equipment, coat, bag of snacks.  We even started the car so it would be warm when I left.  I was sooo prepared.  I got about halfway to Yellville (a town 30 minutes away) when I realized that I had not seen my red purse.  You know?  The red purse with my red cell phone inside?  Maybe it was under my coat.  Nope.  Maybe I had absentmindedly placed it in the very back with my court reporting equipment.  I pulled the car over on a wide shoulder of the highway, put on the hazard lights, and opened the back of the Subaru wagon.  No purse.  No purse in the back seat either.  I could not believe it.  I had not only forgotten my cell phone, but I had forgotten my purse!  A forgotten cell phone I could do without, but a purse?  I had to have my purse.  It has my driver's license and money and fingernail file and lipstick.  I mean...  I immediately turned the car around. When I arrived home, there it was, right where I left it on the stairway.  Remember how early that morning we had pulled the keys out of my purse and started the car early?  I was beginning to think that maybe I would need to make a check list of what not to forget every single day -- maybe someday soon I'd need a list of the towns and courthouses where I needed to appear each day posted on the dashboard of my car.  What a scary thought!  

Oh, but it gets better.  We still have Wednesday to  go.  The car was loaded, and believe me the purse was in the car.  I had checked and doubled checked the contents of my purse and the contents of my equipment.  The car was full of gasoline.  I had my coat.  I had money.  I had my cell phone, lipstick and nail file.  And yes, I had my keys.  I was one happy camper.  Wednesday was one day that I didn't want to drive all the way back home because court was in Mountain Home, an hour drive.  Somewhere along the way my cell phone buzzed. [my cell phone buzzed; a happy sound!]  I pulled over on the shoulder and dug it out of my purse.  Uh Oh! Why couldn't I see the name or the number on the screen?  It was a text message and it was all one big blur.  What was wrong with my eyes?  I pulled the mirror down to have a look at myself. Where were my eye glasses?  Why, they were right where I left them.  In the bathroom on the counter.  ~sigh~



  1. Megan, you are a hoot!!!! I'm just laughing here, and I can't help it. Sorry to say it, but either I'm getting old fast, or the whole chemo thing never went away for me. Seriously, though, I can think of one area of my life where it seemed to have lasting effects. YOu mentioned it here. It's in the kitchen. I semed to have lost my multi-tasking abilities and get VERY crabby as I try to bring things together for a nice dinner. Crabby is better than panic or tears, but panic and tears is what I'd rather do. I can't seem to get past this one. I'd almost rather a peanut butter and jelly sandwich than face the whole dinner thing. Even Buster has learned to stay out of my way.

    I've tried to think it all out: was this just something that turned into a habit or was it really a chemo brain thing. A lot of the forgetfulness seems to have gone (or I've learned to work around it). I no good with lists as I lose the lists. And I can't remember people's names very well. That's about the extent of it. Or. . . . no one has the guts to tell me that I've lost my mind. Not sure about that one yet.

    It takes time, Megan. The brain has an amazing way of compensating for things. If the little space of remembering cell phones has been wiped clean by chemo, in time another space will pick up the slack and start remembering for you. Kind of like stroke patients as they relearn to do things all over again. Knowing you, you will figure it all out, I'm sure!!!!

  2. I didn't have to do chemo so I can't use the "chemo brain" excuse but boy can I idenify with your little saga...made me smile. Hang in there.