Chemobrain…my secret shame


chemobrainI suffer from chemobrain!  Gasp… I said it out loud.  I sort of hinted that I have some memory issues with my closest friends, but I have never gotten on a computer and typed those words out for the whole world to see.  My goal, I guess, is to try to reach other people who may be suffering in silence.  Many of us are embarrassed to explain it fully to their bosses, or their spouse, or even their kids.  You may not know this, but everybody is not as understanding of memory issues as you would think.  I ask everybody not to judge those who are doing their best to: fill out necessary paperwork for their kids school; who are taking too long to make change for a cup of coffee; who leave burners on; who can’t find their hat, library card, or the gas bill that they had in their hand two minutes ago;  or who can no longer follow the directions on a can of soup.

I have been cancer free for six years, and I can tell you that I am a whole lot better than when I first started chemotherapy.  Back then, I saw the pamphlets in the clinic; all neatly lining the literature rack in the waiting room.  I thought I was an intelligent woman, so I ravenously checked every one of them out with the eye of a woman who had managed million dollar budgets and a large staff.  Worried about this new thing called “Chemobrain,” I discussed my concerns with my husband.  He dismissed the whole thing as one of those 300 risks that could possibly happen to when when you take arthritis medicine…or one of those erectile dysfunction pills.  In my actual appointment with the doctor, I was too freaked out about everything, so I never brought it up.  Later, I took all my nice pamphlets of nutrition, chemobrain, radiation therapy, and everything else back home, where I neatly filed them in a binder.

Things started out fine, but then got really strange around month three of my six-month chemo course.  Two horrible mom things stood out, causing me to freak out and worry.  Horrible thing number one was when my teenage daughter went to a friend’s cottage for the weekend, along with six other girls from school. The cottage was four hours away, and she was always a bit nervous about long visits.  I know myself enough to know that we would have talked about her concerns.  I probably would have said, “Don’t worry…Daddy can pick you up if it doesn’t work out!”  She’s smart enough to pack an appropriately filled suitcase, and I know my husband gave her money, because they had an expensive weekend filled with water parks, teenage dining and plenty of shopping.  Would you believe that child left on a Friday, came home on Sunday evening, and I didn’t recall that she had gone anywhere; until a month or two went by and another mom asked me if my daughter had fun! Holy crap…I totally blacked that entire weekend out!  Had the mother never ask me, it would have never entered my mind!

Horrible thing number two was when my husband suggested I join him and the kids in a board game that he invented.  We loved playing that game!  There was a board, dice and fun cards that had exciting pictures on them.  At one point in the game, you look at the picture on a card and you make a move based on whatever it was.  Long story short, I could look at the picture (let’s just say it was a cat), put the card down one second later, and then not remember that there was a cat on the card.  Holy crap, crap, crap!  That is freaking scary! What other things was I not remembering?  Thank God my husband picked up the slack, and just let me do whatever it was that I thought I could manage.  I couldn’t follow a recipe anymore.  I couldn’t balance a checkbook.  I couldn’t be responsible for signing the Friday Folders from my kids’ schools.  Thankfully, I had four kids at that time.  I had jumped off the corporate track and was working part-time as a Lunch Lady in my kids’ school; thankfully, with not a whole lot of responsibility.

The thing is, even when things are going amazing, stress can make us have memory issues.  Cancer just puts a whole wicked twist to our forgetfulness, so we may never even know what we completely lost.  I’m not saying that everybody will suffer from chemobrain, like I did, but there are quite a few people out there who are suffering in silence. People forget their kids at the library.  They forget what they came into the store to buy. Many cannot remember names, or recall relevant information that would have been easy to recall before. Sometimes it is embarrassing, and sometimes you just want to cry…or stay home.  It is sad, depressing and sometimes the people around you get really sick of the this constant problem.

I am going to tell you what worked for me, but I am sure that you can look up many different treatment options that would better fit your lifestyle.  Everyone is different, so every person’s chemofog is going to be different. If you are not suffering, then congratulations…but don’t judge anybody else!  Also, I am not a doctor.  I do not endorse any products, nor do I expect you to follow what I have done.  If you have questions, check with your own physician.

  1. Somewhere in one of my weird health books, I read that a natural doctor had good things to say about Resveratrol and Turmeric as a memory booster.  I really think that combo worked well for me, so I have been taking them ever since.
  2. Gingko Biloba.  This is widely recognized as a memory enhancer.
  3. Vitamin E, Fish Oil and all the good fats from nuts, seeds, and healthy oils (olive, coconut).  The brain needs to be lubricated to have all wiring working good, so this is not the time to be on a low-fat/bad-fat diet.
  4. Read books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, or whatever…and reread them if you have to.  Keep your mind fluid by reading words, looking at pictures, reading comics, wellness books, cookbooks, or anything else you can find.  Read to your kids.  I spent a lot of time doing detox baths, so I read for long periods of time in the tub.
  5. Do puzzle games like word finds, crossword puzzles and sudoku.
  6. Play games that make you sort and remember things.  My favorites are Euchre, Go Fish, Scene It, Old Maid, Spoons, Chess, Checkers, and so many more.  You might suck at it for a while, but keep with it.  It will help you out.
  7. Play games that make you be creative.  My favorites were Pictionary, Scattegories and Scrabble.
  8. Play video games that help you with hand and eye coordination.  We played Mario Kart, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Wii games of all sorts.
  9. Learn a completely new thing that you never did before.  I looked at it as though the pathways and connections were not working; almost as if it was an electrical current that didn’t connect.  The trick was to find new pathways and connections in another part of your brain.  You can learn a new language, learn how to paint or draw, or learn how to play an instrument.  You can take up writing poetry or making jewelry.  You can play video games by yourself or with your kids.
  10. Get outside and walk, think, observe the beauty of life and nature, and to find quiet gratitude time.

I attribute my mental recovery of doing all the things that I mentioned above.  Also, I personally learned the new language and technical skill of playing Guitar Hero with my children.  I started off simple, with singing vocals and watching the kids play the instruments.  The drums were too confusing to me, so I never really learned how to do them at all.  Eventually, I found my groove by playing the guitar, which became my new life saver.  I started playing on an easy level, but I worked my way up to an advanced category that even impressed my kids.  Somewhere over the next few weeks and months, my fingers and brain began coordinating together, and I suddenly didn’t have to “think” about what I was doing.  It became so natural for me to play all these great songs, even though they were not on my playlist (lots of super hard-rock stuff that my son liked!). Somewhere in my journey, I became good.  As my skills improved in everything, my memory started to become more reliable.

What’s the moral of my story?  Like all survivors, it is a personal journey for everyone.  There are parts that suck, and there are parts that suck even more!  I still take lots of vitamins and supplements to keep my brain lubed up.  I write blogs for other survivors, and that forces me to think hard.  I read and learn as much as I can about health and wellness, especially natural healing.  I write poetry, children’s stories and I love to make homemade greeting cards.  I couldn’t follow a recipe for almost year and a half, but now I am back in the groove of cooking and making up recipes for delicious foods.  I still play kick-ass guitar in my basement, and it always makes me so happy to have something fun to do with my kids.  Games are fun for me again.  Things feel mostly “normal” for me.  In fact, my oldest daughter was studying intelligence in college.  She wanted to do a session with me, which determined intelligence and processing time.  I got every single question right, but it took me a lot longer than the average person would have taken to get to the answer.  I may never be as quick to process as I was before cancer, but I know I will eventually get there.  I cut myself slack and remember that I am alive.  As of today, I still plan to do everything I can to keep my brain and mind loose as a goose and ready to learn.




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