Chemo’s Secret Embarrassing Side Effect

Chemo’s Secret Embarrassing Side Effect

Oh, crap. It’s that woman, I thought. 

We were at Lauren’s first football game of the season when I saw a familiar face. It was the face of a friend. Someone I like and respect, but I couldn’t remember her name. I couldn’t remember her kid’s name either. That happens to me a lot.

Since chemo, I’ve noticed that I have pockets of forgetfulness, and I sometimes draw a blank on names and faces. Just last week, it happened again.

I was standing in front of the high school’s performing arts building in the sweltering heat after a parents’ meeting. Heat radiated from the concrete steps, bounced off stucco walls, and beat down from a cloudless sky. Beneath my dress, I could feel moisture beading up, but our conversation was so interesting that I disregarded the fact that it was broiling outside. While we talked, I tried to memorize the lady’s face and to pin her name to my brain. Molly’s mom, I thought, when I should have been paying attention to what she was saying. Molly’s mom, whose name is Missy.

When I was in my 20s, a college professor gave me good advice. “Most people tune out during introductions,” he said. “They assume names are impossible to remember, so they don’t even try.” I was about to graduate, and I wanted the people skills of a politician who could greet everyone in an auditorium like long-lost friends. So, I started paying attention during introductions.

The impact of this one small behavioral change was amazing. Then I added other tricks, like repeating people’s names within the first few minutes of meeting them. I also tried to link new faces to something familiar in my memory, like, “New Tom looks like my brother Tom.” Sometimes I made up rhymes or alliterations: “Doris should be a florist” or “Leslie drives a Lincoln.” Those tricks worked, and I got to be good at it.

After cancer treatment, though, my family and I moved, and every single person I see now is someone relatively new in my life. I can’t keep track of any of them.

After experiencing this embarrassing lapse over and over again, my confidence took a hit. I started shying away from situations where I’d run into people I thought I should recognize. I dreaded going to my book club, writing group, and parents’ meetings because I knew I’d see all those nameless faces and feel awkward. But avoiding get-togethers leads to isolation — a habit that piles another heavy loss on top of others.

So, I’m trying something new: I’m coming clean.

“I’m embarrassed to tell you this,” I finally said to Molly’s mom, “but I might not recognize you next time we meet, and I probably won’t remember your name.” I told her it was a side effect of chemo, even though inwardly, I was cringing a little.

I’m glad I did it, but I want my old skillset back. And just like stroke victims who relearn to walk and talk, I’m going to work hard at it. I know from experience that persistence pays off.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet famously asked. “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” She was right, of course, but then again, she hadn’t moved to a new city after 16 weeks of chemo.


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