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Moving Forward As a Cancer Survivor: Big and Small Decisions
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Holiday Depression and Breast Cancer
December 20, 2016 – Bonnie Annis

Chemo Brain: It Doesn't Always Go Away

Six-year breast cancer survivor is still unhappy with brain fog, even this far out from chemotherapy treatments.
PUBLISHED December 01, 2016
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.
I still struggle with what I think is chemo brain, and I still am sad about my hair loss, even though I am six years out from chemotherapy. I am nervous as I begin a new job this month, and I hope and pray I can learn what I need to learn to do well at it. Has anyone else faced this fear? How have you coped?

How much of the hair loss and memory issues that I have are from my chemotherapy? My hair was damaged by chemotherapy and sort of returned. My hair is thinner, weaker, grayer and grows more slowly since chemotherapy. My brain works, but not as well. I am happy to be alive, and I don’t feel like quite the same me since before chemotherapy.

As cancer survivors, we now live longer thanks to chemotherapy, but how do we know what is aging damage and what is damage from chemotherapy? I am frustrated. What treatments are available? Even if there are word games or brain exercises, who really has the time?

I am glad there is research being done, but when will doctors test and evaluate the memory and other chemo brain symptoms of cancer patients both before and after chemotherapy? I have asked this before. Could new cancer patients who discover they will have chemotherapy request neuropsychological testing to establish their pre-chemotherapy baseline?

For me, without cognitive evaluation before and after chemotherapy, I feel like I came out the other side of my cancer diagnosis healed but with collateral damage. That just makes me feel weary and frustrated on bad days, and yet grateful to be here on good days.

I am an adult. Life itself causes collateral damage—non-cancer health problems, employment troubles, relationship difficulties, car accidents… The list is endless.

Chemo brain can cause collateral damage of its own to relationships, employment issues, abilities and mental health, yet we as humans can be and learn to be resilient. Our brains learn to adapt.

What can I do? Read or write more? Exercise more? Do more puzzles and brain teasers? I want answers; Will these activities cure my chemo brain? How much will they help? Cancer survivors who have had chemotherapy deserve more answers, I think.

One could see a neuropsychologist for further evaluation. I also know we can turn to routines and list-making to get by on a day-to-day basis, but I still feel more research needs to be done. Am I just too impatient? Another question is this: Can I still learn the way I used to be able to learn?

I find a bizarre humor in the fact that now there is a cold cap to help keep my hair if I need chemotherapy down the road. That is great. My hair loss really felt like a big red flag that didn’t let me have a choice to be “normal” around other people for months. Hair. Hair loss for me was a big issue, yet I have never really liked my hair. Truly, we are just talking hair, not life, here. When will there be something to protect the brain from damage like the cold cap does for hair?

Please, let’s find solutions for chemo brain. I am weary of the fatigue, short attention span and memory issues. Science will catch up, and so I will try to be patient and adaptable and just plain hang in there, and I hope you do too!
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