Two-time cancer survivor struggles living with chemo brain.
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
Chemo brain. I am glad the “experts” have finally decided that chemo brain is real. Gee, thanks. What were they thinking? I mean, let’s put harsh chemicals to kill the cancer in our bodies, call it chemotherapy, add a few steroids to help manage side effects, possibly remove hormone-generating organs like the ovaries and uterus if they aren’t already shut down by the chemo, and then conclude for a few years with some medications that suppress any poor hormones that might be left.
After that, let’s turn around and try to believe that none of that impacts the organ called the brain? In a previous post, I mentioned I can’t donate a kidney because of cancer, but hey, maybe the kidney got hurt by the cancer or the chemotherapy but the brain came through in shining glory? Yeah, sure. Ha.
Don’t get me wrong: Chemotherapy has saved and extended many lives, including my own. Chemotherapy is a good choice in a bad situation — cancer in the body. I am just frustrated because I sometimes don’t feel like I think like my old self. Did that make sense? My brain doesn’t feel as competent as it did before I had cancer. My communication skills have deteriorated. Words come out of my mouth that don’t match the thoughts going on in my head. I forget stuff, sometimes quite a bit of stuff. There's clumsiness. There is a mental and physical fatigue that wasn’t there before.
It could certainly be argued that some of this stuff is just age-related or maybe early onset of dementia or some other physical diseases, but for me, it sure seems like the timing matches suspiciously with the chemotherapy. It is too much of a coincidence. If it looks like a rose and smells like a rose ...
Again, don’t get me wrong: I am grateful to be alive. I am happy that my hair (most of it, anyway) has grown back. I am trying to help others and to enjoy my life. I actively pray. I actively practice gratitude. I actively choose to slow down and live in the moment. I distract myself when I need to. I rest when I am too tired to go on. I work with my hands when I feel anxious. I use any and all coping tools available to me. I am, in fact, coping. Most days I cope quite well, really.
People say, “Oh, you are so brave and strong. Look at what you’ve been through — surviving cancer twice.”
Yes, I am still here. No, I am not brave and strong. I did what I had to do. I got through
my cancer. I am not some brave war hero. Cancer is a disease. I really don’t like it when people who don’t understand try to glamorize it. Maybe they are just trying to be nice. I certainly am not a courageous soldier. In fact, sometimes I just feel like damaged goods or even one of the walking wounded. There are no medals for that. I am just grateful to be here still participating in life.
Some days or some moments, it doesn’t feel like enough. Am I being greedy? Maybe. Maybe deep down on some days at some moments, I still want my old life — or rather, my old self —
back. Sometimes I get tired of coping. Sometimes I get tired of having to cope. I guess everyone has stuff of some kind to cope with. Don’t get me wrong: I know I am still me. I still feel like me, but it is a different me. Do you ever feel this way? What helps you cope with chemo brain?