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Chemo Brain

ShannonCoxby Shannon Cox, Living with Cancer

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.



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20 Responses to Chemo Brain

  1. Pingback: Chemo Brain – Shannon Cox

  2. kay taylor says:

    Shannon, your well-spoken thoughts speak loudly to us all– and you’ve created a bond among all survivors of trauma who suffer similar debilitation from a variety of causes: losing a child, saying goodbye to other loved ones, dealing with temporary or longer illness– the fog of trauma is something many share. What a succinct and profound way you have of describing what I’ve often felt, having had a son killed in Iraq. Our support group of 7000 families will appreciate your clear description of your own ourney. SO HAPPY your recovery is GOING SO WELL!
    Much love,
    Kay Taylor, friend of your parents

  3. Jean Nelson says:

    I have never met you but I have read all of your blogs I found posted. I know your parents . This is a wonderful open and honest article. You may have an additional life path. That being an encourager to those who are just starting out on the journey you are coming off of. I am glad for you that you are seeing improvements. I have no doubt you will be back to your old normal. God Bless You.

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  5. Lisa says:

    My dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor in January and has undergone one round of radiation and two rounds of chemo. The “chemo brain” has been by far the worse side effect of the treatment. None of his doctors ever mentioned it as a side effect, which has been so frustrating. We had no idea what was happening to him until I started looking on the Internet and his family doctor confirmed it. It’s so bad that I think he may decide to stop treatment just to hopefully get his mind clear again. He’s 76 and has other health issues, but his mind has always been incredibly sharp. I think he would rather have a clear mind and less time than a constant “fog” where he can’t remember or finish a sentence.

    • Shannon says:

      Lisa, I hope it’s some better by now! By the end of treatment I was repeating myself and had no idea. It has improved dramatically – it’s been almost 10 months. While I don’t totally feel back to my “old” self, the fog has cleared dramatically! Lots of love to you and your dad!

  6. Donna says:

    Thank you for the article, I went through chemo in 2013. I had heard about chemo brain but of course you say to yourself it is just life and being busy. Of course that was wrong, it is a real side affect. So now into 2015 I still have the foggy brain especially when I get tired. In fact sometimes it is so bad that I even slur my words, I know what I want to say but it comes out not making much sense. Similar to being drunk is the closest example I can compare it to. I thought as time went on it would get better, but it really hasn’t. It is very embarrassing when you are with people and you are trying to get your brain to function beyond the fog. I really have to be careful about getting over tired. Thank you again and I wish you all the best with your recovery.

    • Shannon says:

      Hi Donna – so sorry for the slow response… I’m right there with you on not getting over-tired. It is definitely worse when I’m tired. I’m kind of an extrovert, but have found it’s hard (especially at night) to be around others. For the same reasons as you – I’m tired and just can’t think through or find the words I need. Hang in there – it’s continuing to clear for me, but I still don’t feel like my old self. And my brain definitely functions slower than ever before. Hang in there!

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  9. Mariah Maloy says:

    I’m a fibromyalgia patient, and we go through a similar phenomenon we call fibro-fog. It is so frustrating, sometimes I worry I’m going senile; but I’m not, it’s all still there. Good luck on your journey! I have faith that it will get better for all of us.

    • Shannon says:

      I have faith that it will get better too! I know others with the fibro-fog and it’s difficult. And it totally makes you feel like you are going crazy… But it is still there, we just have to be a little more patient with ourselves. Take care!

  10. Anna says:

    I was diagnosed in August 1st of 2007 and I still have the fog of chemo brain. When I’m very tired I notice it really slows down my work and affects me. It’s very frustrating because I’m used to being very efficient and very fast. My memory has really been affected by it.

    • Shannon says:

      Hi Anna – while it’s getting a little better, it has totally affected my memory too. And I hear you on slowing you down. Takes me twice as long to think through things – especially if I’m tired. Hang in there!

  11. I with through chemo in 2008. I questioned it at first and blamed it on the cancer, the stress just fighting to live. Chemo-brain has gotten extremely worse over the past few years, I now forget words, forget spelling and even forget what I am talking about at times. I also do not remember things as well and I have to have list everyday to follow. It is starting to be very disturbing. Does anyone know of a medication that will help. I see my oncologist in November but I don’t think I can wait that long. Is there another type of Dr someone could recommend.

    • Shannon says:

      At this point, unfortunately I don’t know of any medication… It is disturbing and frightening and makes you feel like you are going crazy. Was your oncologist able to provide any insight?

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  13. Charlotte says:

    Great article. I am 14 months post chemo and my chemo brain is finally starting to clear. My short term memory was so affected, I could blink and complete loose where I was. Like you, I was dreading the hair loss, the nausea, the fatigue, but I had no idea about chemo brain and the effect it would have on my life long after my treatment was done. I was just starting up my own business when diagnosed. Needless to say, I have been unable to get it off the ground as everything I do just seems to take ‘3 times’ longer. I initially put it down to fatigue and stress, having not slept through the night for over 4 months, but is real, very real and very crippling on life.

    I hope yours start to ease soon and wish you all the best for your recovery.

    • Shannon says:

      So glad it’s finally starting to clear for you! Mine is definitely getting better. Like with each month post-treatment, it’s a little better. But still, not the same. My short term memory has been dramatically affected too. I’m still making lists, setting reminders on my phone – for things I never had to before. Like so many others mentioned, it is worse when I’m tired. Owing my own business I totally get it – takes me longer to think through things as well… Hang in there – hopefully it will continue to improve! All the best to you too!

  14. Shannon says:

    Hi everyone,
    So sorry for the slow responses. While treatment is rough, recovery is no joke either! My chemo brain has improved so much. The fog has “mostly” lifted. But it is still there and my short term memory is shot. When I get over tired, it is way worse. Like at night or in a large group of people, it takes so much more effort to make conversations flow. Also, if I get interrupted from whatever I was doing, it’s frustrating, because it’s hard to remember and takes me long to focus back on the task at hand. And multi-tasking – forget about it. Not that I was great with it before, but now it’s impossible. Chemo brain is real, no joke and really difficult. Hang in there friends – we’ll get through this together!

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