Monday, February 13, 2017

CC12: Chemo Brain

The first wings and cider!
The side effect that seems to be most long lasting and constant doesn’t make me physically sick or tired. It has more of a psychological impact. I’m talking about chemo brain. The Mayo Clinic defines chemo brain as a “term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment,” but researchers are unclear on what exactly causes it. (Based on their list of possible causes, I am guessing my experience is due to high levels of potent chemo meds.)

The best way I can describe chemo brain is that it’s similar to ADHD. I find it hard to focus on things for extended periods of time and I find myself growing increasingly forgetful. I can’t seem to remember things from day to day, but can remember specific events from years ago. Additionally, I sometimes struggle a lot with word retrieval, but oddly enough not the name of the process. A good analogy for experiencing chemo brain is Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates. Her memory reset overnight, but she could remember things from a decade ago as clear as day.

To best illustrate some of the moments when chemo brain has struck, I have been keeping track ofsome of the more notable events:
  • One of my favorite things to do on my “long weeks” was watch food challenges on YouTube. (For those of you wondering what a food challenge is, it’s when a person tries to eat a lot of food or a certain amount of food in a set time frame. It’s oddly fascinating, and I found it helped me to live vicariously through these random people when I didn’t have much of an appetite.) I was trying to tell my mom about one of the food challenges and I was couldn’t find the words to explain the restaurant that it took place in. I said, “You know, Mom. They were eating lots of shrimp at ‘Seafood Olive Garden.’” Strangely enough, she knew I meant Red Lobster.
  • This past week, I have been going on walks during the day since it has been so nice out and I wanted to build up for my stamina as I prepare to return to work. Prior to chemo, Mal and I had gone on dozens of walks, so I knew the layout of our neighborhood pretty well. Not so much anymore. I got lost on two separate days, which is amusing since our neighborhood is just a massive loop with a few smaller loops within it. One day, I took a turn too early and didn’t realize it until I was back at my house and the other day I didn’t take a turn when I should have. I was on the phone with my sister for one of the times and she told me that I shouldn’t go on walks unsupervised. Good life advice from a teenager to her adult brother.
  • Sometimes, chemo brain causes slight bitterness on Mallory’s part. On National Pizza Day, we ordered a large pizza from our favorite pizza place. Allegedly, as I was putting away the leftovers, Mal requested that I save them for her. Apparently, I agreed to that, but the following day, I had the pizza for lunch. When Mal went to have the leftovers later in the week, she asked where they were and I said, “Um, in my belly, why?” With an exasperated sigh, she cursed chemo brain. I made up for it by making her French bread pizzas instead. Sorry, Mallory (but it was delicious). This instance of accidentally eating her leftovers wasn’t the only time, but I think that has more to do with me misinterpreting her words (and my general love of food) than my forgetfulness. However, I still maintain that I do not remember this so-called conversation about the leftover pizza.
  • Possibly my most shining chemo brain moment was from last Saturday. I was home alone and wanted to do a certain task in the kitchen. However, every time I got downstairs, I couldn’t remember what I needed to do. I tried to do different things to help trigger my memory, but to no avail. (Side note here, as I typed that sentence, I said ‘no to avail.’ Chemo brain strikes while writing about chemo brain!) On the fourth such endeavor, I decided to unload the dishwasher. I found ramekins in there, which triggered the memory. To no one in particular, I exclaimed, “PUDDING!” (I suddenly remembered that I wanted to make chocolate pudding.) This then made me crack up hysterically, as it reminded me of Dean Winchester from Supernatural. Crazy works.
Our three year anniversary was this week
These are some comical moments from experiencing chemo brain, but it does bother me to a degree that I constantly am in a state of fog. Throughout my K12 education experience, I was in the gifted program and I have always prided myself on being pretty smart. I feel like I struggle with remembering to follow through with things now, and I have to have others remind me to do things (like take medicine so I don’t feel sick, although feeling sick is another good reminder). As I’ve shared numerous times on the blog, I don’t like relying on others, but I do appreciate their help. I’m looking forward to getting back to full clarity in my brain. I haven’t read a book since the first day of chemo due to my inability to concentrate, but I am going to attempt to read a shorter one this week. I’m confident that it will be a good experience and won’t just frustrate me more. (Between writing and publishing this post, I was able to successfully read 90 pages of Chase by James Patterson. It took three attempts to let my brain focus for a long enough period of time, but it's a success in my book. Get it? Eh, I'll blame the lame joke on chemo brain.)

Because of this experience, I definitely have a stronger understanding and appreciation for my students who have ADHD and will now be more cognizant of how hard they must be working to stay focused and on task. If I find myself needing to take breaks while watching a movie, I can imagine how taxing a 25+ question assessment must be for them. In some cases, I know cancer patients can be prescribed (not ‘described’ as chemo brain wanted to say there) similar medicines to those with ADHD to help fight the effects of chemo brain, but I haven’t discussed that with my doctor yet.

But the best upside to chemo brain? It’s a foolproofway out of arguments!

“Why didn’t you unload the dishwasher?”

“Ummm… chemo brain!”

“That’s not how chemo brain works!” says Mallory, summoning her inner Han Solo.

I’ve completed undergoing chemotherapy to cure my cancer. Each Monday, I’ll post my thoughts on this experience. These may be reflections on my prior week’s treatments, musings about my newly-altered life, or anything else that comes into my “chemo brain.” Follow along with all of my posts here.

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