Chemo Brain

Chemo fog is also commonly referred to as chemo brain. It is like weather related fog in that a person just can’t see clearly or get much done. You go through the motions, but life lacks luster. You can’t shake being tired when you wake up. Fatigue of the mind stays with you all day. Other symptoms include difficulty concentrating, trouble remembering conversations or the right word, and taking longer to complete projects or tasks. A serious illness can also bring on extra stress, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. All of these can affect a person’s cognition. Although I never really felt confused or had trouble remembering anything, I just had a general mental fogginess that I couldn’t quite identify. I was slower. You get used to it and just figure it’s part of the collateral damage of treatments.

Then one day, the chemo fog lifted. I remember the morning about six months out from what I thought was my final chemo back in 2012. I woke up and my mind was completely clear. It felt like information traveled faster on neural pathways. It happened again the next morning. By the third morning, I was convinced that I had met one more benchmark that life was returning to my normal.

It hadn’t, but the chemo fog was gone. Even with continual treatments over the past three plus years, I never had that sense of slower processing return. I am grateful that my thinking is as clear as ever.

Many people deal with chemo fog every day. What can a person do to help minimize chemo brain?

Stay well organized.

Make lists and follow routines. Writing important ideas down will ease any pressure to remember so much on your own. Try to keep all your notes in one place so what you’re trying to remember isn’t scattered about in several different places. Use a daily planner, your phone, or an ongoing notebook of lists. A notebook or health journal is also a good place to track chemo brain symptoms since you may discover patterns when it seems better or worse. Medications or specific situations may also affect your memory. Following a routine will help you with day-to-day schedules. Do you always pay bills on a certain weekday? Is pizza night every Tuesday? Do you have a grocery list of staple foods that you always buy? Are there specific days that you use for specific appointments? I always set up acupuncture appointments on Mondays. I spaced an appointment that I made on a Wednesday (even though it was written down) because I just didn’t go there on Wednesdays. I do well with routines, not so much with changes in those routines.

Get plenty of rest and sleep.

It’s said that driving when you’re tired is as dangerous (or more dangerous) as drunk driving. I know people who haven’t had any cancer treatments who are unable to remember much because they simply do not get enough sleep. Lack of sleep slows your brain in processing information. Sleep is important all the time, but it’s especially an important part of healing and recovery during and after cancer treatments. Appointments, errands, and work may go more smoothly if you complete some activities in the morning when you are fresher and have more energy. I wanted to walk the other evening with a friend and was simply too tired to go. I was grateful she cancelled and now I know to schedule those activities earlier in the day.

Don’t do too much.

Focus on one activity at a time. Ask for help from family and friends so you can conserve mental energy for more enjoyable endeavors or your work if you’re working. Multi-tasking doesn’t work well for someone experiencing confusion with an unreliable memory. If you know you need a whole day or two after a treatment to focus on the basics of the basics, that’s fine. There is no need to push yourself.

Play brain games.

I like word games and brain teasers. I did a lot of word puzzles and critical thinking exercises with my students. My mom and I would do jigsaw puzzles together. A few years ago, I bought the memory game Simon more out of nostalgia than any other reason, but it’s a great way to work short-term memory skills. Reading is another way I continue to work my gray matter.

Make healthy choices in terms of eating and exercise.

Veggies are better for brain health than sugar. Moving around is good for both mind and body. It can help decrease fatigue brought on from treatments. This may be a good time to put the word out to friends who have offered to help that a casserole or dinner with fruit and salad would be appreciated.

Stay tuned for a special Monday post where I continue with a few thoughts about the atmospheric fog that limits visibility. It’s a bit shorter, yet, metaphorical and worth pondering.

Consider responding:

  • What has been helpful for you or someone you know who has had chemo brain?

 

 

Categories: Change

 

Tags: fog, clarity, focus, chemo fog,

 

 

 

Alabama Alligators and Being Normal

February 4th is known as World Cancer Day and just happened to coincide with the first day of a trip I took to Point Clear, Alabama. I was headed to the Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa to celebrate my retirement. It was a perfect time to get away from winter, from people, and from cancer as much as it’s possible to get away from it when it travels with me. The resort had everything I needed on site in an idyllic setting.

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Grand Hotel Resort and Spa  (All photos taken by me unless otherwise noted.)

Point Clear is far down south in Alabama and across the bay from Mobile. The resort was built back in 1847 for wealthy families. It was also used as a base hospital during the Civil War for Confederate soldiers. Point Clear’s location on Mobile Bay made it a valuable port. There have been a couple fires and subsequent renovations to expand and retain its old southern charm.

The shuttle ride in from the airport consisted of a lot of discussion concerning if there were alligators on the resort property and how safe I’d be walking about on my own. Yes, there were alligators in the area. No, no one had ever had a problem with one on the resort. They really weren’t commonly seen. Did I know that alligators were fairly passive and weren’t going to go out of their way to get me?

No, I did not.

You literally had to already be on top of them or they would need to feel cornered to provoke an attack. If an alligator was twenty or thirty yards away and saw you, it was not going to make the effort. It may not even be hungry. Crocodiles were more aggressive. Even so, no thanks. If I were to encounter one, and say be up close and personal where I’d be wrestling it, I would need to poke it in its eyes and it would instantly release me.

Instantly. Never mind my severed arm or leg.

As an alternative (choice is always good), I could just grab hold of its tail and flip it over onto its back and it would fall straight to sleep and be in a hibernation state.

Straight away.

None of this reassured me. I wondered how the gator unflipped itself because eventually it would wake up. I was told it couldn’t do that and it was the end for the alligator in as many words.

Another driver on a different day told me alligators were more curious about people than anything else. Curious? I think squirrels and chipmunks are curious. I do not care to see an alligator in its natural habitat.

Again, no thanks.

It became clear to me on my first night that people just spoke differently to one another here that went beyond the accent. Chalk it up to southern manners and the hospitality industry. My name was either Miss Kristie or Ma’am. It felt a little funny, but I could handle it for a few days. I entertained telling people my name was Missy just to see if I’d be called Miss Missy, but I knew I couldn’t do it with a straight face.

Past vacations with my family were very touristy. We made excellent tourists. What could we see? What tours were available? There wasn’t much down time. We were on the go from morning well into the night. We saw many things and went to a lot of places. At the end of a trip, we rated everything we did from our favorite to least enjoyed activity. Even now days, there is usually far too much discussion and planning based around restaurants and eating.

It was really good for me to go to Alabama on my own. It marks my 50th state. I am a person who has been on the go for most of my life.

In Alabama, I had every day for down time. I struggle with that because the idea of doing nothing as something is a different kind of vacation for me.

I thought about arranging transportation so I could tour the USS Alabama WWII battleship because I enjoy history. There was a boat tour I was interested in to see birds and other wildlife safely. Kayak tours were available. Those piqued my interest. Then I remembered the gators and didn’t want to be at eye level with them, even if I’d have better positioning to jab them in their eyes.

Still no.

I started to feel down that I had come such a long way and wasn’t going to do much. Then I remembered why I came in the first place – it was to take it easy and relax. I did not come to run myself ragged and see how much I could get done in a day.

Point Clear was the perfect place for my destination, named because of its super visibility. I had great clarity on why I came, what I wanted to accomplish, and how I wanted to feel.

My agenda for each day read as follows: Do Whatever I Wanted.

I didn’t want to be scheduled. I wanted to get up when I woke up, eat when I was hungry, take a long walk every day, work out in the fitness center, maybe swim, and spend time reading. I looked forward to enjoying the warmer weather and change of scenery. I hoped to write a bit every day and gather up new ideas from being in a different location. Doing nothing as something was really a pretty full day.

Porch swings dotted the brick path that bordered the shore and looked outward to the water. Hammocks waited for company. Rocking chairs made themselves at home on the patio to my room. Wicker furniture circled bonfire pits inviting guests to kick back, watch sunsets, and relax at night under the stars. Those were all signs, some pretty darn good ones if you ask me, that the pace in Point Clear was supposed to be slower and more relaxed.

There was a shuttle to Fairhope each day. One day I ventured in because I liked the name of the town (big surprise) and noticed the tulips and daffodils were out when I passed through coming from the airport. Since tulips are often one of the first spring flowers to bloom, they are associated with rebirths. Daffodils also symbolize rebirths and new beginnings. How perfect to see so many in a quaint town with hope as part of its name. This vacation signaled a new beginning for me – a lifestyle of staying active and embracing opportunities to relax.

I walked around a bit, popped into a few shops, and visited the history museum. Much to my surprise, it was in one of the boutique shops that I encountered my one and only alligator. She looked sassy and not the least aggressive, but I left her where I found her.

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Taking time for self-care is essential for me as I live with cancer and live well. No doctors this week. No appointments. No need to share with anyone. There would be no one judging how I looked or analyzing my every word or action. It’s as if I could be completely normal for a few days. As far as anyone knew, I was normal. That was my story and I was sticking with it.

Normal. What a wonderful feeling. Getting away from it all was awesome. It was definitely a perk of being on my own that I didn’t have to factor in someone else’s life.

Forgetting. Being normal.

I know there are all sorts of normal. Normal for me is abnormal for others. I want the normal of being healthy. I want the normal of waking up with energy and not having to conserve it so I can do something I really want to do later. I want the normal of being able to plan my life with certainty and not wonder about dark things like alligators and such.

Others may have their own inner struggles with what normal looks like and feels like for them. Everybody has some insecurity whether it’s related to health, personal relationships, work relationships or performance. Some aspect of a person’s life is hard and just doesn’t feel normal. Some people are awfully good at looking like they have it all together. A normal life (problem free) is not possible for anyone.

At this point, I also realize I’ve come face to face with the dreaded alligator just about every day, and that every day I flip it by its flippin’ tail after poking its eyes for good measure. It’s my attempt to keep living well with strength and purpose. I make my own rules for forgetting what I want to forget and being normal.

Forgetting is a luxury. Being normal is relative. I’ll take what I can get.

What I got in Point Clear was a place where no one knew I have cancer. Discovering that clarity was a tremendous gift. I felt happy. Capturing this feeling requires that I stick with my story of being normal when at home. I can stick with it because I can live that story. It involves forgetting the parts of my life that are challenging in terms of my health.

It demands that I keep flipping that alligator whenever it dares to snap its ugly snout at me.

alligator-amphibian-animal-347721. pexels.com
Image credit: pexels.com

See you later, alligator.