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Chemo Brain

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Chemo Brain is a common term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment. Chemo brain can also be called chemo fog, chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment or cognitive dysfunction."

Though chemo brain is a widely used term, it’s misleading. It’s unlikely that chemotherapy is the sole cause of concentration and memory problems in cancer survivors. Researchers are working to understand the memory changes that people with cancer experience.”

Whether aging or chemo brain is the cause of memory loss, or just simply trying to multi-task and do too much, short term memory “fog” seems to be among my biggest challenges. Often, it can be resolved easily, but it’s not only frustrating but is a cause of great concern. This past week-end, (Thursday to Monday), I flew to attend my nephew’s wedding in Charleston, South Carolina. It was a beautiful event and I was able to spend time with family members I hadn’t seen in a while. We enjoyed many late-night talks and reminisced about the “good old days” when we spent Summers together.

On Monday, I flew to West Palm Beach, Florida for two days to sign papers to compete the sale of our home in Delray Beach. This task required packing up remaining items and storing them. I also tried to spend time with my son, daughter-in-law and beautiful grand-daughters.

Wednesday afternoon, my husband and I flew from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to London, England to embark on a tour guide assignment. On Saturday we depart with thirty-five guests on the Queen Victoria for a cruise around England and Ireland. Preparation for assignment included not only packing, but significant paperwork. A challenging part of this task is to memorize information on each guest so we can greet them properly upon meeting. The only knowledge we have on these passengers in advance is what we are given by their booking agent. Are you exhausted yet?? I was!

The result was that I had a scary “brain fog” incident yesterday. Normally I would have shrugged it off, but it totally consumed me emotionally. When we arrived at our Airbnb after flying all night (east bound transatlantic flights normally fly all night), my husband and I took a nap. When I awoke, my glasses were missing. The last time I remembered having them was when we were in the taxi on the way to the apartment. We searched the small apartment from top to bottom over and over and they simply were not here. We called the taxi company and the driver said I was wearing them when I got out of the taxi.

My husband and I have two tours to escort on this assignment and I will be away from the US for a month. I was so upset at having to be a month without glasses that I worked myself into quite a state. We went for a walk and got some dinner, but my dinner was ruined thinking of the glasses. I kept thinking, “How could I be so careless”? This was going to ruin the trip. No matter how hard I tried, I had no recollection of having the glasses when we arrived or where I could have placed them. This confusion went on for hours and I finally decided to go to bed. Before retiring, I decide to “sweep” the apartment one more time. No luck. OK, enough, I said, “Go to Bed”. I opened my make-up case to get some hand cream, and yes, you guessed it, there were my glasses!! There is no explanation why I would have put them there nor do I remember doing so. This was scary!

Was this simply because I was tired, or was it a case of “Chemo Brain”? The point is, I let it consume me and the feeling that I was “losing it” was scary. I have spoken with many survivors who experience similar experiences. Perhaps if I had handled it calmly, it would not have affected me as deeply, but having absolutely no recollection of the events when we arrived was what weighed on me most.

Life after cancer requires a “new normal”. Accepting that you may need more rest than before, and perhaps forcing ourselves to simplify things can help avoid similar situations. Love yourself and accept that it’s not your fault. We often get so overwhelmed by life, and one such incident is just enough to push us over the edge. Don’t beat yourself up and lose the guilt. Thank God (and Saint Anthony) I found my glasses before I went to bed or I probably would have never gotten any sleep. Learn to laugh at these crazy events…Life is Good, we are still here!

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