Do you suffer from chemo brain?
During my chemotherapy treatment I used the excuse, “Oh I’ve got chemo brain,” to explain away little things. Sometimes I said it to my husband. Other times to a friend after I’d forgotten something she’d just said.
I knew chemo brain was real, but I didn’t know how real until one day…
Symptoms of Chemo Brain
I rushed into my Lymphedema therapist’s office…
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Oh yeah. I have lymphedema in my left boob. This means that it’s a half size larger than the right one. Recently I saw someone who I hadn’t seen during breast cancer treatment. She looked down at my chest. Then, looked up at me with a big smile saying, “I’m sorry Trav, but I don’t remember you having such a huge rack.” Not normally what happens to breast cancer patients after surgery. But what about this whole thing is “normal?” Lymphedema is another blog post waiting to be written.
…20 minutes late. Terribly unusual for me. But what was more unusual is that I’d messed up all my appointments and meetings that day. Even after I’d looked at my calendar numerous times. Out of breath and feeling confused, I apologized to my therapist.
I’d joked about forgetfulness, but her words somehow touched me. Brought me into the present moment. So much so that I spilled out tears and words explaining this was not like me. I didn’t feel like myself.
“It’s a real thing, chemo brain. We can help you.”
You know my motto? More help is always a good thing.
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The symptoms of chemo brain listed at the Mayo Clinic’s web site are:
- Being unusually disorganized – CHECK! This was me.
- Difficulty concentrating – CHECK! Had this too.
- Difficulty finding the right word – CHECK!
- Difficulty learning new skills
- Difficulty multitasking – CHECK!
- Feeling of mental fogginess
- Short attention span – CHECK! This was pronounced.
- Short-term memory problems – CHECK! Husband was getting irritated with me until we knew what was going on.
- Taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks
- Trouble with verbal memory, such as remembering a conversation – CHECK!
- Trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words
What Is Chemo Brain?
I didn’t take chemo brain seriously through treatment until I reached this breaking point in my lymphedema therapist’s office.
The thing is – it’s real. I found this on the National Cancer Institute’s web site,
“In an update on the state of the science in 2012, Tim Ahles, Ph.D., of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and his colleagues reported that studies of breast cancer survivors found that 17% to 75% of these women experienced cognitive deficits—problems with attention, concentration, planning, and working memory—from 6 months to 20 years after receiving chemotherapy.”
The article – “Understanding “Chemo brain” and Cognitive Impairment after Cancer Treatment” was originally published by the National Cancer Institute.
No one knows for sure why it happens or what causes chemo brain according to the article. Early studies suggest some breast cancer patients go into treatment predisposed to cognitive decline due to age and genetic make-up. Another study suggests that maybe the drug Tamoxifen adds to the breast cancer patients mental decline. Balancing out hormones is a tricky business.
Age was not a factor for me. Diagnosed at 46, people I saw kept saying I was young for the disease. It was a bright spot however small. As for genetic make-up? I have no clue. When I dig into research, articles and findings, I’m reminded again and again, breast cancer treatment is one big experiment. There’s a reason it’s called “practicing medicine.”
At the UNC Healthcare center, speech therapists treat chemo brain. Go figure.
How to Treat Chemo Brain
During my first appointment, the speech therapists took a cognitive assessment. Think storytelling, memory games and grade school math. I don’t want to give too much away in case this may be in your future.
What I realized while taking the assessment is I’d created strategies unconsciously for dealing with my memory and focus, or lack thereof. Sometimes I’d beat out rhythms on my leg to coincide with verbalizing a story. Or use visualization to relay a list.
They said my scores were impressive except in one area, FOCUS.
I’d experienced this on conference calls. I’m in the midst of uncovering what I want to do next for work so conference calls are important.
Typically, I can tell a story leading up to a point I want to make. But three weeks before meeting with the speech therapist, I’d gotten lost in the story forgetting the point. A story loop.
My strategy was to change the subject when I noticed it happening.
Sometimes my mind would go to the worst possible thought. You know the one if you’re a breast cancer survivor…
“Is the cancer back?”
My mind can race to fearful places. The answer is no, the cancer is not back. The answer is,
“I have chemo brain.”
On my next appointment, the speech therapist gave me a pencil and two sheets of paper. One sheet had a spreadsheet with five columns listing information on the E.U. countries. Think population size, currency used, and country capitals.
The other sheet asked questions pertaining to the spreadsheet. Think, “How many countries use lire?” or “Sort the countries from smallest to largest population.” They weren’t pre-sorted. I had to cull through the info to answer the questions.
I completed the exercise with 100% accuracy with time to spare. But when I left, I felt like my brain needed a nap. That’s the retraining of my brain to focus. New neural pathways forged in my chemo brain.
What Can You Do for Chemo Brain?
Turns out that anything that challenges my brain to think differently helps:
- Learning a new language
- Playing solitaire
- Even planning a trip with an itinerary is a good exercise for my brain.
The therapist gave me a list of Apps to help. I’ll include in the resources below.
It seems on this breast cancer survivor journey there is help. It’s a matter of finding it. Having been diagnosed and treated for chemo brain feels good.
The other day I forgot the grocery list, but when I came home from the store, I’d remembered all but two items. Pretty damn good. Not just for a recovering chemo brain, but for anyone!
Hope this helps you or someone you love.
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[Images sourced at Pixabay.]
Here is a list of Apps given to me by my care team for chemo brain. The title says, “Cognitive Reorganization Activities.” Keep in mind I haven’t vetted these. If you have an app you like or one of these works particularly well for you, please share in the comments section below. Thank you!
Break the Ice