I do a lot of whining about chemo brain lately. And whining is the only word for it. Wahhh I can’t answer questions quickly. Wahhh simple math requires a calculator. Waaaaaaaaaaaahhhh I parked on the wrong side of the road on street cleaning day because I couldn’t parse “even” versus “odd”, thus getting a ticket.
It’s difficult for me to explain how the processes of my brain have absolutely and thoroughly changed over the course of treatment. It is part stress, part sleep deprivation, part anxiety, and then there’s the physiological change that chemo makes on the brain.
From Noreen Fraser’s (cofounder of STAND UP TO CANCER who has stage IV breast cancer) blog:
“Around 2004, chemo brain was finally given some recognition. PET scans revealed that the frontal cortex of the brain was compromised in patients who received chemotherapy. Here are a few of the suggestions offered to deal with the symptoms of chemo brain:– Crossword puzzles. Now that’s something we all want to do when we feel horrible… just grab The New York Times and doodle away. – Exercise. I can barely get myself dressed to go to work and sit in a chair all day. I doubt I’ll be doing much spinning. – Omega-3 oils. OK, this I can do. I can swallow a pill. (Sorry for the sarcasm.
Noreen notes that when she was initially diagnosed in 2001, medical professionals did not acknowledge chemo brain and passed it off as part of the aging process. That might work for a patient in their 60s or 70s, but hello!, how did they explain that away for young adult survivors? I’m just coming off of the college high and was at the sharpest I had been in my whole life.
Just because medical professionals have come to accept and research this very real obstacle doesn’t mean it’s any easier to try to explain to my coworkers why I am at times zoning out in front of the computer, trying my best to avoid peeling my face off the keyboard.
So what is this thing I keep referring to? As with most things chemo-related, chemo brain varies from person to person. For me, it even varies day to day depending on any number of factors with pain, fatigue, and the state of the tummy being my big 3. The best way I can describe it is if the invisible hand came down from IV bag and flicked away 30 points off my IQ. I stumble over my words, struggle with even fairly basic theories or concepts, lack the ability to type almost anything correctly the first time, and find my focus taking extended vacations that it just doesn’t seem to want to return from (I hope somewhere nice, I forget every time it tells me).
Take today. I feel exhausted and my stomach is KILLING me. Rather than stay at home and sleep, I decided to be a masochist and come into work because I have work that I feel the need to get done. That’s not to say it doesn’t need to get done, only that no one is standing over my shoulder yelling hurry up except for that pesky voice in my head. I edit some pictures, fix some screwy HTML, and WHOA WHERE DID THE LAST HALF HOUR GO! Not actually being productive, that’s for sure. And not even lost in a good daydream. Just, poof! Gone. Normally getting myself into a routine helps avoid some of the pitfalls, but no amount of swerving and pre-planning can avoid the mental black holes I get sucked into.
In many ways, chemo brain effects my self esteem significantly more than the ridiculous weight gain of chemo. Not being able to button my pants? Been there, done that – but at least I could best just about anyone at a political debate (read: this may mean stubbornly wear them down until they gave up, but I don’t even have that going for me anymore). Now I find myself having to handwrite out all the details of the debt crisis in a diagram to begin to make sense of it. People ask me relatively simple questions about my job that I can do if I was physically doing it, or that I know I know, but just can’t crack out of my brain to talk about. Oh, and what’s your name again?
In related news, I am really starting to get annoyed with the term “the new normal”. Maybe I should refer to all these new things as my superhero powers? Looks like the power of forgetfulness will stick around for a little longer than planned.