Chemo Brain

Facebook Post from December 7, 2010 at 9:19am
“chemo brain moment #416....I ordered 125 Christmas cards that DO NOT have our last name on them! Too late to change....hopefully our picture and first names will be enough! What an idiot!”

Ok. Let’s be honest. I suffered from some serious chemo brain during my treatment (and some might argue it still continues today :). I had heard about it before treatment started, but I kind of dismissed it. Maybe only aging people get chemo brain. Nope. I got it, and I got it pretty bad.

Before cancer, I prided myself on my ability to multi-task, to talk fast, and be efficient and precise in all that I did. Some call it Type A personality, some say anal retentive. Whatever it was, it was me. To a fault. I also had mass amounts of useless information stored in my head, which I guess just takes up space and makes you good at Trivial Pursuit and answering random questions that no one should really know the answer to. (I still know all the lyrics to Vanilla Ice’s famed “Ice Ice Baby”, but I can’t memorize a single scripture. Super helpful, right?).

Then along came chemo, and a permanent fog took over my brain for several months. I don’t remember when I first noticed it, but there it was, and I was doomed. Out with the multi-tasking, information central. I was now a chemo vegetable.

I am always on time. Early if possible. Chemo made me operate in slow motion, and I started running late. Not super late, but late just the same. Mornings were hard getting the kids out the door, and while we never missed the bus, we cut it close pretty often. So not like me!

One Saturday, I got Ryan to the soccer field at 10:30am, thinking we were 30 minutes early for his 11am game. WRONG! I mixed up the times and we were an hour late for his 10am game – he missed his warm up and half of the game. I was devastated and burst into tears. I felt like a terrible mom. I have never done that, and hated that I was the reason he was late and missed most of his game. Ryan, however, was unfazed but it all and was just happy to play soccer. Parents always make a bigger deal out of things, don’t we?

I found myself tongue tied very often. Those of you who know me know I am never at a loss for words. I always have lots to say (obviously!) But I felt like my mouth could not keep up with my head, and I would jumble my words up, almost like a stutter. I also found myself searching for words to complete a sentence that I would normally know. It was different than not being able to remember some obscure name or fact; this was not remembering things I should have known. It was beyond frustrating.

I struggled with forming sentences correctly, and writing emails became a challenge. During my treatment, I remained on the board at Norah’s pre-school as the class Vice President. Along with making the monthly volunteer calendar, I would send out emails to the parents periodically to make announcements, ask for supplies for parties, etc. I remember sitting down to type an email for a simple announcement, and it took me forever to form the sentences. It was as if my brain was in molasses and I just couldn’t get it to work.

My patience also took a beating. Frankly, I no longer had any. Cancer allows you the rare opportunity to take a step back and really simplify. I embraced the things that were important and the rest just didn’t matter any more. It was easy for me – my diagnosis shined a light on what really mattered. The hard part was that I sort of expected that everyone I came into contact with had embraced the same philosophy. So I was constantly disappointed when people would freak out or get upset over something super trivial. I just didn’t care, and it made me a not-so-nice person for a while. I just did not have patience for trivial, superficial matters.

Multi-tasking had become a thing of the past as well. Cooking, something I usually enjoyed and could do fairly well, became a real challenge. My poor family was forced to often eat burnt, overcooked and rubbery foods, all because I could no longer do too many things at once. Good thing for all those Let’s Dish! freezer meals and my fabulous friends who brought in hoards of food, or we would have had to resort to Michael’s version of cooking: take-out.

We had Stella’s 7th birthday party at an ice rink, and while I was prepared for the party and made cute invites and goodie bags and all that stuff, I struggled at the party to do more than one thing at a time. The normal Jenna would flit around, doing ten things at once. But I found myself in slow motion without the ability to multi-task at all. Fortunately Michael was there to pick up the slack, along with some kind parents who pitched in and helped to make up for my turtle-like brain.

Having a conversation with me was also super fun. Fully engrossed in a discussion, I would stop mid sentence and then ask, “what was I talking about?” It’s not like it was a one time thing - it happened all the time. I wasn’t getting distracted and losing my train of thought. I would completely forget what I was saying. I doubt I was on anyone’s list of people to have a meaningful conversation with during this time.

I noticed that my ability to make a decision was also compromised. I found myself second guessing EVERYTHING. I could not be decisive about anything – I needed the advice of Michael or anyone who was willing to listen and share their point of view. I guess all of the symptoms I was experiencing caused me to really doubt my abilities. Normally a pretty confident person, I struggled with simple, everyday decisions. The Christmas cards I referred to in the facebook post above took me forever to decide on. What card to choose? What font to write it in? What picture to put in? I went back and forth on everything. And in the end, I forgot to include our name on them!

Despite all this, I really didn’t get too worked up about my chemo brain problems. Of course I had my moments of frustration and annoyance, but there were bigger things to worry about. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. Or maybe I just forgot to be upset.

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