“I suffer from short-term memory loss. It runs in my family… At least I think it does… hmmm. Where are they?” -Dory, Finding Nemo
Dory, are you my spirit animal? I forget everything too! I’d forget my own birthday if I didn’t have to write it down all the time. In Finding Nemo, Dory fumbles to find the right words. She forgets where she’s going, she introduces herself multiple times, and she remembers things incorrectly. Me. All me. (Except I don’t speak whale.)
When your great aunt forgets your birthday, it’s not a big deal because degenerative memory loss is common when you’re 80. I’m 32, so when I do these things, people just think I’m an idiot. We refer to this forgetfulness and fog as “chemo brain” in the cancer community. Chemo brain is the term used to describe cognitive impairment as a result of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation and mental stress. I know that I’m an intelligent person. I’ve made it this far in life without trying crack, or wiring all my money to a fake Nigerian prince in an Internet scam. But, sometimes I do feel pretty dumb because of chemo brain.
Chemo brain is not something most cancer doctors will prepare you for. Some will even dispel it as a myth. I know that before chemo, I wouldn’t have driven to the wrong airport and missed my flight. I wouldn’t have gone to the grocery store for eggs, and come home with a birthday cake and a spicy rotisserie chicken. I forgot the eggs, and then spent 20 minutes trying to remember where I parked my car.
Although it has been 15 months since chemo, the emotional and physical wreckage is still all around me. But I am rebuilding. When I think back to the first few months of my cancer diagnosis, it’s like trying to see in the dark. What order were my surgeries again? What was that doctor’s name? It’s a haze of mental shock and a drug-induced fog from chemo and painkillers. I try to lace together my memories as if I’m picking out stars in the sky, struggling to identify a constellation in the darkness of space.
After I finished my treatment, I waited for my chemo brain to magically vanish. But while I waited, I missed doctor appointments. I struggled at work. I forgot birthdays. I had a potato for a brain. I knew that I needed to go see a psychiatrist to talk about clinical ways to address my chemo brain. Before my first appointment, I had prepared questions and printed out research. And then, in a cruel twist of fate, I forgot my purse. Of course I did. Maybe I should just get a fanny pack so my purse is always attached to my body? Kidding.
Dory’s forgetful nature is cute and amusing, but her true message is one of optimism: “When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming.” So, I swim. I write things down. I have calendar reminders for everything. I see a psychiatrist. I double-check my flight times. I tell my family and friends to please remind me of any important dates. I also find that scheduling my day and keeping a routine helps me a lot.
New studies show that recovery from chemo brain is possible. For some people it’s as short as six months and for others, the side effects can last a lifetime. For me, it’s getting better! And I had six high doses of Adriamycin, which has been linked to the worst cognitive issues.
Don’t get discouraged. Getting your brain powered back up takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself, but take an active approach by using all resources available to you. I tell myself that I won’t let my potato brain, cancer or any other obstacle in my life be a crutch.
And it’s working, I finally feel like I’m getting back to my pre-cancer self. I even went to the grocery store yesterday and came home with everything on my list, plus I remembered where I parked my car! So maybe it’s time I pick a new spirit animal. Sorry, Dory.
Tinkerbell, are you my new spirit animal?
Namaste, my pink sisters.
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