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‘Chemo brain’ after breast cancer treatment complicates a return to day-to-day routines

A few days ago, I filled a pot with water and added a few peppermint tea bags. I placed it on the stove to boil, left the kitchen, and got distracted. The smell of smoke told me the teabags had turned to ashes. I hid the embarrassing evidence in a garbage bag, and walked out of the apartment to dispose of it. Then, guess what? I forgot the garbage bag.

Breast cancer treatment has left me struggling with poor concentration and an unreliable memory. Some cancer patients blame these spacey episodes on “chemo brain.” For years, doctors were dismissive of their complaints, but now experts recognize the term, and have made it the focus of research.

I’m definitely not alone. A woman on Twitter who identified herself as a breast cancer survivor joked that she wanted to put on her “Don’t Mind the Chemo Brain” trucker hat, but had forgotten where it was. Another cancer survivor did a video take-off on an anti-drug commercial from the 1980s and posted it on YouTube. He holds up an egg, and says, “This is your brain.” He then cracks it open and pours its contents into a hot pan. As the crackling noise rises to a crescendo, he raises the pan to show the fried egg and says, “This, is your brain on chemo.”

Breast cancer survivor Idelle Davidson, who blogs about chemo brain, co-wrote a book titled Your Brain After Chemo that contains this alarming statement: New studies “reveal that the agents used to kill cancer cells may also impair normal brain function. Even years after treatment.”

On her blog, however, Davidson shared an inspiring lecture that Dr. Karen Saywitz, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, gave last week at the Cancer Support Community in Los Angeles. The clinical and developmental psychologist has been on the UCLA Medical School faculty since 1986.

Saywitz emphasized that she has had to “fight” for her brain. She said patients can influence their internal biology and seek help from rehabilitation-medicine and neuropsychology professionals. She added that although her cognitive functioning hasn’t returned to its pretreatment level, she has made steady improvement. “I learned to be more self-aware, monitoring my cognitive errors over the course of a day or a week, what triggered them, under what circumstances they appeared, and what were the consequences,” she said.

I turned to the University of Miami’s Courtelis Center for help. Returning to work full-time has been tough. My pace is sluggish, and my brain feels like a sieve sometimes. I have been using my iPhone’s reminder alert, note pad and voice recorder more often, but those steps are useless if I lose my phone, as I did twice last week.

“Before the treatment, multitasking was my way of life. Now, I struggle to focus on one task,” I tearfully told psychologist Ingrid Barrera. Barrera said nutritional deficiencies, stress and depression can cause similar symptoms. Then she gave me a test to measure cognitive ability. For about 10 minutes, she had me draw simple figures and asked me what seemed like silly questions, some of which I couldn’t answer correctly. Barrera said we would be doing this exercise on a regular basis to track my progress.

A few hours later at work, I met a couple of new colleagues, but the name of one of them didn’t stick. Was it David or Daniel? I had to take a guess: Daniel. Wrong (buzzer sound). It was embarrassing.

There it was, I thought, chemo brain. I wanted to tell him about the chemicals that had invaded my body, attacking cancer cells but also scrambling my brain. I wanted to tell him about how grateful I felt to be there – alive and working – but I didn’t. I just said, “Sorry about that David.” And smiled.


Part 1: At age 33, I’m dealing with breast cancer

Part 2: Cancer treatment complicates dreams of pregnancy

Part 3: Hanging in when chemotherapy gets rough

Part 4: Tough surgery choices: Mastectomy vs. Lumpectomy

Part 5: Silicone implans are not the only way to go in breast reconstruction

Part 6: Rebuilding the breast from body tissue

Part 7: Body fat can be used to build breast

Part 8: Facing my fears after mastectomy

Part 9: Taking control of the fear that comes with breast cancer

Part 10: Doctor knows about being a breast cancer survivor

Part 11: Radiation therapy gives her hope

Part 12: Finding strength from others

Part 13: Facebook, medication help breast cancer patient deal with depression

Part 14: A new outlook on 2012

Part 15: Breast cancer patient faces genetic mystery

Part 16: Using diversion to cope with harsh reality

Part 17: After radiation therapy ends

Part 18: Friend’s breast cancer journey is not as fortunate

Part 19: Anti-tumor meds come with scary story

Part 20: Reentry into the world after breast cancer treatment

Part 21: Bad combination for a patient: Too much fear, too little trust

From the Editor: Journalist confronts cancer, takes readers along