A Mother and her Two Daughters

09 May 2010

I have chemo brain. What’s your excuse?

Chemotherapy indeed saves lives, but new studies reveal that the agents used to kill cancer cells may also impair normal brain function. Called “chemo brain” or “chemo fog”, oncologists often discounted or trivialized the mental effects of chemotherapy – until recently.  Now there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

If you’ve undergone chemotherapy, you might be among those who’ve had trouble following the thread of a conversation or feel less cerebral than you once were.  The side effects include:
  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Struggling with word retrieval
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Inability to multi-task

In simple terms, it’s when the chemotherapy drugs cause the brain to become forgetful, confused . . . what was I thinking or writing about? 

As for me, it feels very real, kind of like an interruption of the thought processes, but in slow motion.  For someone who spends her days writing, painstakingly trying to select the perfect descriptive word, some of the side effect can be terribly frustrating.  One day I can be incredibly productive with my work; and then the next day I would swear that someone had stolen my brain and replaced it with those wet things that you put pasta sauce on top of.  NOODLES!  That’s it! 

My first encounter with chemo brain was in late March, when Little Rock is at its most beautiful with blooming pear trees and dogwoods, and those beautiful yellow flowers that are found all over town.  What’s the name of those flowers?  Mom helped me out – “they’re called jonquils,” she kindly said. 

A few weeks ago I was trying to tell Anna-Lee about a car that my friend recently purchased.  I told her it was black, it was a Volkswagon, but for the life of me I could not remember what you call a car that doesn’t have a top.  “Its a convertible Mom,” she patiently reminded me. 

Just this past week, chemo brain must have really set in.  I did all the right things to make myself a cup of coffee using my Keurig coffeemaker that lets you brew one cup at a time; well, all the right things except remembering to get out a coffee mug . So, the entire cup of coffee went into the drip tray.  A wasted coffee pod, for sure. 

And on Thursday, Jessica and Leslie came by the house to visit following chemo treatment #5.  As I lay on the sofa telling them about the new treatment, I told them about the Benadryl shot my chemo nurse injected before the infusion procedure.  Jessica stopped me to ask why Benadryl.  What I meant to tell her was it was a precaution to prevent an “allergic reaction.”  But instead, I told her it was to prevent a “religious accident.”  A religious accident??  You can imagine her confusion, and our laughter, after I realized what silly chatter came from my mouth. 

Am I worried about this?  Maybe I should be, but I’m not.  Instead, I find it much easier to laugh about with friends and family.  Besides, cutting edge scientific research now confirms that following chemo treatments, patients can get back their groove with new strategies to improve memory and focus, and help keep your brain sharp.  In addition, I have assured myself that I’m obviously not alone. If there are truly ten million cancer survivors in this world, that means there are millions of chemo-brain victims – all of them muddling through words, tripping over sentences, trying to remember the name of their dog or their daughter, and struggling with the steps to make a simple cup of coffee. 

Hey anyone, can you tell me how to get to the kitchen? 

The biggest challenge for me?  Keeping my daughter quiet.  Anna-Lee recently said, “Mom, you’ve always had chemo brain.  Now you just have an excuse.” 

Here’s to chemo brain, alive and well and very welcome if the treatment means my cure!  And Happy Father’s Day to you all! 

Update:  I awoke this morning for the first time in days not feeling the need for a pain pill.  While my legs are tired and a bit sore, they are no longer in pain.  Again, we’re making progress.  Now if I could just remember my name and what day this is . . . .


  1. My brain excuse. I went to Un. of Arkansas for 2 years and Hendrix College for 2 years. You are an awesome Mom this day. Love to you and your girls.

  2. I love it. I laughed and you have to also, After all laughter is the best medicine, well along with the chemo.
    Happy Mothers Day! Hope you have a good week. Love you

  3. Thanks for the belly laugh on a Monday. I didn't realize how much I needed one.

    So, we get to have a brain excuse. I must have missed that class at Hendrix. Perhaps, I should have paid more attention to the course listings in the business major section!

    Have a great Mother's Day, week of celebration! Why not? We deserve it.

    Love to ya from the Great State of Texas!

  4. Hi. I'm still dealing with chemo-brain a year after my treatment finished but at least I am here to forget things! It's a struggle at work sometimes - e.g. starting to write a draft document I found I had already started the week before - and struggling to finishing either of them! And my wife is always talking about stuff we have apparently arranged, though I have no memory of us discussing it. Still, my advanced cancer seams to be halted, I am feeling better than I have in 3 years and my kids (aged 4 and 6) are keeping me active - so my foggy head is something I can put up with. Lots of love to you and your family, I know what you are going through and you WILL get through it.


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