After being diagnosed with breast cancer, I had a lot of fears. Fear of the side effects of chemo, fear of surgery and further treatments. But there was a side effect of chemo that I did not expect and it hit me harder than I ever thought it would. Chemo brain.
Even though I was losing my hair and was more nauseous and exhausted than I had ever been, it was my inability to think through things that sent me reeling. After my first dose of chemotherapy coupled with my inability to tolerate steroids, I was unable to do anything other than lay in bed for a week. The following week I was feeling a little better, but was so cloudy headed I could not clearly think through things. As the week went on, I had the realization that my inability to think clearly was not getting better.
Everything I did was through a thick veil of chemo fog. It felt like all of my thoughts were still in my head, but someone pulled a fuzzy blanket over them. It just took a little longer for everything to process. Trying to think through things was difficult, especially on days when I was more tired from chemo. My short term memory was almost non-existent. And if I lose my train of thought during a conversation, it won’t come back.
Owning my own company, I found myself immediately unable to work. When I would try to get a little work done, it would take me at least three times as long to complete a task. Which led to a tremendous amount of frustration and fear. Would I always be this way now? Would I ever be able to return to work? Is this going to get worse with each chemotherapy treatment?
As a person who loves meeting new people, those conversations were suddenly much more difficult for me. My mind would occasionally go blank when new conversations began and I found myself unable to ask questions or continue the flow of conversation. All of that combined would make me unbelievably mentally tired.
Talking to my oncologist helped put my fears at ease. She ensured me that it is very common and it will get better. But for now, there are some things I can do to help ease the frustration. First was the acceptance of it. The more I worried about it, the worse it seemed. When I was able to let go and let conversations flow, without over-thinking, it became easier. This included telling my friends and family and explaining to them what I was experiencing.
Easy reading, writing, puzzles and other activities that helped me feel my brain cells were still working. Nothing too mentally taxing, or else I would feel worse. It’s all about finding your balance and what works for you and what you are comfortable with.
Resting and getting a good night’s sleep is essential. That isn’t an easy thing to do when you are going through chemotherapy. Though I stayed exhausted, my sleep was constantly interrupted. And those days when I was more fatigued, my chemo brain was noticeably worse.
After five months, I completed chemotherapy and had surgery for a bilateral mastectomy two and a half weeks later. As I am finally on the mend and healing, I can feel the veil of chemo fog lifting. My short term memory isn’t great yet, but I feel much more clear headed and hopeful. From talking to my doctor and learning from other articles I’ve read, it should come back, but can be a slow process. So for now, I’ll continue accepting, reading and resting. As well as working on my sense of humor for those “chemo brain” moments.
At 40 years old I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Starting chemotherapy just eight days after diagnosis, flipped my life upside down. The side effects of chemo left me unable to work and changed our lives to a new-normal. From a busy life of owning my own business and being a mom of two elementary age kids, to suddenly not being able to think through things was extremely difficult. But we are taking this journey one day at a time and starting to enjoy life post-treatment.