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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My fuzzy brain--lets hope it's temporary

So today's update on my physical symptoms include some shortness of breath, dizziness/light-headedness, increased neuropathy (lack of sensation) in my fingertips and some pins & needle sensation in my back that is intermittent, and then the usual fatigue/exhaustion. I'm no longer waking up at 5am and 6am--now I'm sleeping 9-10 hours a night, which is definitely unusual for me--I'm typically a 6-8 hour person. I think the combination of anemia and chemo are responsible for the first two symptoms, which are relatively new--the Taxol is responsible for the pins & needles/neuropathy. I've decided to not drive right now because I figure that trying to shift (I have a manual transmission) and steer when I'm having neuropathy in my fingers is not such a smart thing. Add on the light headed issues and I think that everyone is better off with me off the road.

Anyway, what I wanted to write about today is a concern that I've been having ever since I was 2 treatments into my chemo and started noticing that my cognitive abilities had changed--that my memory wasn't what it was, that I was substituting words (sort've in metonymic/synechdochal fashion, things like when I wanted to say "stove" but instead said "oven"--although that's more relational than metonymic/synechdocal)--also, just now I realized that I typed "every" for the word "ever" and started to write "know" for "now"--which I know may just be simple typo stuff, but it's not just that--it's something else going on in my head.

I know I've used the phrase "chemo brain" before and explained the phenomenon in some past posts, but I decided to do some light researching of this term, and here's what I found:

*A description on the American Cancer Society's site (click here) that gives details about the phenomenon.

*A two-part New York Times series on the details of chemo brain (Part I) and the treatment of chemo brain (Part II).

*A whole website called devoted to the phenomenon which goes by the medical term "Cancer-therapy associated cognitive change" (sort've a mouthful, so I'll stick to chemo brain for the time being).

Now, I want to reassure everyone--I'm not nearly as bad as some of the folks in the New York Times articles. I have not driven away forgetting my groceries or Matthew. I am still able to multitask (albeit slower than normal and perhaps with less balls in the air), and my memory is not that impaired.

However, I feel I am not as sharp as I used to be. Really--I'm not. I just know it. You know when you know yourself really well and you feel off? That's how I feel--mentally, I feel off. I'm not as quick. It takes me longer to process information that I read and hear. And most notably, I have not had any real interest in working on anything too intellectual. Now, I KNOW I'm on a medical leave of absence and I do NOT have to be working on my Tiger Woods chapter. But perhaps it's the academic in me--perhaps it's that I want to feel more "normal" and what I'd be doing right now if I wasn't going through chemo is teaching and writing so I want to feel like I'm my old self--or perhaps I'm just one of those crazy/driven people who always feels she has to be working. Whatever it is, there is a nagging in the back of my brain that says I should try to work and try to write. But I'll be honest: I'm afraid. Because I don't feel sharp right now. Because my level of concentration and focus is not what it used to be. Because sometimes just reading and replying to email messages is more than I feel up to, energy wise.

But really, what I fear is that right now, if I tried to write, I wouldn't sound smart. I wouldn't be smart. I would just make random points that aren't coherent or fully analyzed or that say anything. That I'd just be writing jibberish.

But above all, what I'm worried about is that this fuzzy, foggy feeling in my brain will be permanent. That I'm going to be one of the 50% of people who have lingering chemo brain side effects. And that scares the hell out of me because my brain is my bread and butter. Thinking well is what I've always prided myself on--and along with thinking well, writing well is also top of the list, and lets face it, the two go hand in hand. What happens if I'm only able to focus for limited stretches, if my cognitive sharpness doesn't return? If I'm quite simply permanently brain damaged from the chemo? The loss of my hair was traumatic--but at least I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my hair would grow back. This chemo brain business--this is frightening to me. And I suppose I should be grateful that I am only experiencing a mild version, mostly in some light memory issues, some aphasia, some concentration and analysis slowness.

Yet for someone who is used to be highly functioning in the mental category--whose mind has served her well--very well--in years past, this all feels like a big deal to me right now. And I know if it's permanent I'll manage. I already do a lot of the things that they recommend to help with chemo brain; I suppose being hyper-organized before chemo helped. But it's my ability to make connections--to make intellectual connections and analyses that I fear may be impaired. I suppose only time will tell.

And now, just to show that my sense of humor isn't impaired, here's something to make you laugh:


  1. For what it's worth, your writing here doesn't betray even the slightest bit of fuzziness. I don't dispute that it's what you're experiencing -- I'm just saying that it's probably VASTLY more noticeable to you than it is to anyone else.

    Besides, a dull moment for the likes of you is a razor-sharp one for about 99% of the rest of the population. So take heart!

  2. i got a kick out of that video!