Chemo’s Impact on the Mind: Drawing a Blank on the Dish I Wanted to Describe

Chemo’s Impact on the Mind: Drawing a Blank on the Dish I Wanted to Describe

A Lump in the Road column
Every morning, I get up and write three pages. It’s a habit encouraged and made somewhat famous by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, and normally I enjoy it. But since my cancer diagnosis, my morning writing has hit a speed bump.

Lots of my ramblings focus on food. No surprise there – I love food. Growing it, shopping for it, cooking it, eating it. Really, I don’t even mind cleaning up after it.

So in my morning pages, I often find myself musing about a dish I prepared the previous night, and celebrating little successes or chastising myself for fails. This morning I wrote about a tomato sauce I made from the produce of my desert garden where orange, yellow, black and red fruit weighs down the vines I’ve tied to the tallest stakes I can find.

Last night, I could tell I had a hit on my hands because my family lapped up extra sauce with their spoons – a sweet victory for any cook. In my journal, I wrote about melting the tomatoes together, adding anise seeds, thyme from my herb patch, and a splash of vodka.

Then I wanted to elaborate on the rest of my dish. That’s when I hit my speed bump, a problem I blame on chemo. I couldn’t remember the right word.

When I write, I try not to interrupt my train of thought by looking up facts I can verify later. So I kept writing even though the elusiveness of that word was driving me crazy. “What is it I’m looking for?” I wrote, letting my frustration leak onto the page.

Sometimes when I provide myself a definition of vocabulary I can’t verbalize, the word itself comes to me, and my irritation passes.“I served my sauce over that yellow Italian corn meal I mix with salt and parmesan,” I wrote. No luck. Nothing popped to mind.

I knew the word I was looking for started with a “p.”

“Placenta,” I wrote. Nope. I knew that wan’t it. “Peacocks. Pocahontas. Pepperjack cheese.” I was guessing like crazy. Is this Alzheimer’s? I wondered. But I have enough chemo friends to know that many of them experience the same problem.

My oncologist told me that cognitive impairment happens during chemo. Friends have also told me that brain function takes a hit during menopause. I may be experiencing a double whammy because I have chemo-induced menopause, and my brain function doesn’t feel like it’s improving.

After a few paragraphs of chasing that missing word, I gave up and moved onto other subjects. But later this morning, while I was in the shower, it came to me. With steam fogging up the glass, and the fragrance of shampoo infusing the air, somehow the word “polenta” came to my mind. Actually, two words came to mind: polenta, and cancer.

I heaved a sigh of relief. The recollection made me feel better. Last night, I said to myself, I made sauce from tomatoes of every color, a hint of safron, and a sprinkling of fresh basil. And I served it over polenta.

Although I can’t always remember the right words to describe it, I’m grateful for the little things that flavor our lives and for the remarkable chance to experience them again.

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2 comments

  1. Barbara says:

    I can completely relate to this. I have undergone chemo 3 times in the last 6 years and am still on chemo. I sometimes worry that I have dementia as well as chemo brain. I take cold comfort in the fact that my cancer (metastatic Breast cancer in lungs and liver) will get me before I go completely mad!

  2. Barbara says:

    I can sooo relate to this! Been through chemo 3 times in 6 years (and still on my 3rd round of chemo) and it seems to be getting worse. I really do worry sometimes that I am developing dementia! I take cold comfort in the fact that my cancer (Stage 4 breast cancer in lungs and liver) will no doubt finish me off before I go completely mad!

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