Tessa called me yesterday. “Tess, I’m at the checkout in Sainsbury’s. Can I call you back in five minutes?” And then I didn’t remember to call her until just now. This is not an isolated incident. I wander into rooms and wonder what I’m doing there. I find laundry in the washing machine that has been mouldering for three days. Recently I discovered some money in a savings account that I had completely forgotten about. I have missed a few medical appointments too, which has proved costly.
I take some comfort from a study that was publicised on the BBC last year. One of the findings was that “those with cancer at the study’s start were 43% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than the cancer free.”
It seems likely to me that my forgetfulness could be attributed to a condition known as chemo brain. My friend Dawn has had chemotherapy too. As if to confirm my suspicion, she rings and tells me at length about how it takes her an age to get out of her house because of forgetting this and that. She also describes becoming overwhelmed by simple daily tasks and events. I can relate.
Forgetfulness and a feeling of being swamped can also be symptoms of depression, so who’s to say? Whatever is causing our brain fog, one thing is for sure – it’s real. The good news is that both chemo brain and reactive depression are temporary states of affairs.
On the Cancer Research UK website I read about the signs of chemo brain:
- Memory loss – forgetting things that you normally remember
- Difficulty thinking of the right word for a particular object
- Difficulty following the flow of a conversation
- Trouble concentrating or focusing on one thing
- Difficulty doing more than one thing at a time (multi tasking)
- More difficulty doing things you used to do easily, such as adding up in your head
- Fatigue (tiredness and lack of energy)
- Mental fogginess
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
Since nobody knows what causes chemo brain, nobody knows how to cure it. Common sense tells me to take a fish oil supplement. I recall that Bertie Wooster would always command Jeeves to eat a can of sardines whenever they were faced with a particularly thorny dilemma. I sprinkle brewer’s yeast on my breakfast for vitamin B. I buy the Engevita yeast flakes by Marigold. They don’t taste horrible like the powder. The Cancer Research UK website also suggests taking aspirin. Aspirin seems to have numerous health benefits including reducing the risk of blood clots and strokes.* A recent study in the USA suggested that regularly taking aspirin may be associated with a reduction in breast cancer recurrence.
But really, drugs and supplements are unlikely to cure chemo brain. The best way to deal with it is to develop strategies for coping. Here, again, are suggestions from Cancer Research UK.
- Keep life simple
Hah. Fat chance!
- Don’t try and do too many things at once
I make a cup of tea before I pick up the phone
- Write lists about what you need to do, things you need to buy and where you left things
I never go to the shops without a shopping list. Even then I am liable to forget something. I try to be very methodical about where I put things, for example, I always hang my keys on a hook by the door.
- Write people’s names down with a brief description to help you remember them
Seems impractical to me. I’d just lose the notes.
- Repeat things back to people, for example, repeat the names of people you meet for the first time
Always a good strategy in life.
- When arranging to meet someone or organising an event write the details down and repeat them back to someone
I write down everything in my diary. I mean everything. Not just appointments but also phone calls I need to make, what’s on tv, birthdays, household chores I need to do and bills to be paid.
- Talk to people somewhere quiet with few distractions
Impossible. I live in London.
- Keep a calendar on your wall
I find it’s better to just have one diary with everything in it. Otherwise there is room for slip-ups.
- Write yourself ‘Post it’ notes and stick them up where you can see them to remind you to do things
Maybe I will write a post-it note saying GET UP and stick it on my forehead before I go to bed.
- Eat healthily, exercise, and get plenty of rest – don’t get over tired
- Keep your mind active doing crosswords, sudoku and puzzles
A few months ago I started obsessively doing number puzzles. Now I’m really good at Kakuro and Killer Sudoku but I still can’t figure out my mortgage.
I would add: if you are taking daily medication, use a marked pill box.
* Be aware that there are also risks associated with taking aspirin regularly.
Have you experienced chemo brain? Please tell us your story.