Chemobrain is real.
Ask any patient receiving or who has received chemotherapy. Some of us recover fully from the cognitive dysfunction resulting from toxic chemicals dripped into our bodies. Others do not. And some, like me, recover a bit after treatment but never seem to quite regain their mental sharpness and stamina and focus.
For me, chemobrain has been a sad, frustrating reminder of cancer. My oncologist told me that chemotherapy should not be having an effect on my brain for so long after treatment. Blame it on depression. Blame it on menopause. Blame it on stress.
But I and at least a few experts know better. I even reviewed a book on this condition.
Chemobrain is real. And, yes, I’m a card-carrying member of the Chemobrain Club.
I’ve tried to describe to those never having been affected by chemo what this condition is like. For me, it’s a fog rolling over my mind, causing facts to no longer have that stickability — as soon as I learn something, it often flies away rather than sticking to my brain. I must write everything down, and my notes are usually all in a jumble, not like in my neat pre-chemo days. Thank goodness for Evernote on my iPad Mini. I am also so grateful to my other best friend and personal assistant — my Google calendar, which syncs all of my appointments and meetings with my Android phone.
Yes, technology provides the necessary cover-up, so I can pass for “normal-brained,” whatever that means.
Prior to chemotherapy, I took my smarts for granted. I was sharp back then, remembering even the minute details of daily life. I remembered all my appointments and obligations without using reminder tools. I also had a long attention span and intellectual stamina; I could read challenging materials for hours.
Fast-forward to today. A fog still resides in my brain, and I know I’m not the same as my pre-chemo self. After years of brain-activity exercises such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, computer brain games — all causing me to short circuit — I finally got to the point where I accepted the “new me” (I hate that term) and accepted this cognitive dysfunction as the “new normal” (I hate that term even more).
Chemobrain is a force to be reckoned with. That’s a no-brainer, pardon the pun.
Then there’s reading. Or, rather, not reading.
Since chemotherapy, the thing that I loved to do so much throughout my life — reading — has no longer been pleasurable. I’ve been easily distracted, have lacked focus, tripped over sentences, and forgotten what I just read. Over the post-chemo years, I would have prefered a comic book version of many books. Sure, I could read what I needed to read for class, but no longer for the sheer joy of it.
Reading became joyless. My confidence in my reading intellect waned. Not reading for pleasure itself was a huge loss — until this year.
This year, I got tired of being tired of reading.
I would no longer allow chemobrain to hijack my literary joy.
I had been reading material for classes and really hunkered down and focused on the tasks at hand. This year, I found just a bit of joy reading the material and a thirst for more to read. I hung onto that feeling and tried reading for fun. I started with memoirs. I was enjoying non-fiction. I would download the books on my iPad mini and read them and, for some reason, I found my concentration to be stronger than it had been in years.
One late night I was hungry for fiction. I wondered, with excitement, about all the books I’ve always wanted to read. The choices were endless.
However, my mind kept returning to one book. I tried to dissuade myself. But in the end, I made my decision.
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Yes, extreme reading should be an Olympic sport.
I was scared at the thought of reading this mammoth novel, especially given my shattered confidence in my brain’s ability to absorb material. But all I could think of was that I wasn’t being fair to myself to deprive myself of the ability to try reading this book.
Now that I’m 13 percent finished with War and Peace (but who’s counting?), I can say that it is truly wonderful and pleasurable! It has so many degrees of awesomeness. Sure, it’ll take me forever to finish it, but who cares? What’s the rush? Why rush time?
Chemobrain is definitely affecting my ability to remember some characters and details. (In my defense, War and Peace has, like, a gazillion of them.) But I’m not allowing my brain to intimidate me and hold me back from what I truly want to do, and that is to read more and read what I want. And reading this novel has boosted my confidence in my brain like nothing else has.
For years, I have fought the war against chemobrain. Now it’s time to accept who I am and enjoy the peace of getting lost in a great classic.
Do you suffer from chemobrain? If so, how do you handle it?
How would you describe chemobrain to someone not initiated into the world of chemotherapy?
Tags: cancer, chemobrain, chemotherapy, cognitive dysfunction