About ten years ago, there was a popular book out entitled, “Who Moved My Cheese,” that discussed how people reacted to change. Who knew that ten years later, this phrase would come to mind so often. One of the side effects to chemo is called chemo brain.
Doctors and researchers call chemo brain “mild cognitive impairment.” Most define it as being unable to remember certain things and having trouble finishing tasks or learning new skills. Here are just a few examples of what patients call chemo brain:
- Forgetting things that they usually have no trouble recalling (memory lapses)
- Trouble concentrating (they can’t focus on what they’re doing, have a short attention span, may “space out”)
- Trouble remembering details like names, dates, and sometimes larger events
- Trouble multi-tasking, like answering the phone while cooking, without losing track of one task (they are less able to do more than one thing at a time)
- Taking longer to finish things (disorganized, slower thinking and processing)
- Trouble remembering common words (unable to find the right words to finish a sentence)
Now I know what many of you are thinking . . . this happens to everyone at some point. But what you have to understand is that we (cancer patients) have had chemo, so we have a built in excuse for the rest of our lives. The rest of you are just forgetful!
When I first started noticing chemo brain, it scared me. I couldn’t add numbers in my head. I couldn’t remember our room number if we were in a hotel. I couldn’t remember people’s names that I have known for years. I would forget words. Or I couldn’t figure out a menu. My family has been very good to calmly supply the word I’m looking for when I can’t seem to come up with it, or to order my favorite dishes when I look at a menu in confusion.
I stopped at the bank recently to make a deposit and the clerk asked if she could help me. I said, “Yes. I don’t know the date, and I don’t know my account number, but I do know where I am.” She laughed and processed my deposit then pointed south and said, “You live two miles that way.” So helpful! But it did make me laugh.
Another example was at a charity auction where Gene and I had purchased two items. The lady read off the cost of the two items that we bought and I sat with my pen poised over my checkbook trying to figure out what the total was. I tried to add the two numbers in my head, but kept forgetting the first number. I stood helpless until Gene leaned over my shoulder and whispered the total in my ear. I turned and grinned at him and said, “You do realize I’m the Treasurer of this fundraiser don’t you?” We both laughed at the irony.
I can’t list the number of times that I have walked down the hall at home and turned to ask Gene where I’m going or what I was suppose to do. Taking my daily medications has resulted in the dreaded pill keeper. Dry erase boards with lists are my friends.
Chemo brain struck again yesterday when I walked into the grocery store and stopped dead in my tracks. I looked around and thought, “How could they have totally rearranged the store in just three days?” It turns out that I had driven to a different grocery store than I usually go to. Once I realized this, I grinned and nearly clapped my hands. This could be like a scavenger hunt as I tried to find the items I needed! When I got home and told Gene the story, I told him that the good news is that every day is an adventure.
One of the best parts to chemo brain is that I don’t remember most of the books that I have read or the movies that I have watched. So I can start over in my wonderful library of books and they will all be new again. I have moments as I’m reading that things seem a bit familiar or I can guess what is coming next, but then I claim to be psychic. Maybe a day will come where I don’t remember that I had cancer . . . hmm.