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A Cancer Survivor's Suggestions on Dealing With Chemo Brain

Breast cancer survivor shares how she approaches her ongoing chemo brain.
PUBLISHED January 18, 2018
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 "experts" now acknowledge that chemo brain is real. I mean, wow. What rational human wouldn't think that using harsh chemicals to kill cancer in our bodies, called chemotherapy, and adding a few steroids to manage side effects, as well as possibly removing hormone-generating organs like ovaries and the uterus, might conclude that these things could create some problems in other organs, like, well, the brain? I have learned that I can't donate a kidney or give blood because of my cancers, too. That said, here are my thoughts and I hope they help you.

Acknowledge chemo brain. I know chemotherapy is a good choice in a bad situation. Still, I am just sometimes frustrated because I don't feel like or think like my old self. Did that make sense? My brain doesn't feel as competent as it did before cancer. My communication skills have deteriorated-words come out of my mouth that don't always match the ideas in my head. I forget stuff, sometimes a lot of stuff. I have bruises from banging into things and being clumsy. I experience mental and physical fatigue that wasn't there before. You too?

Don't blame chemo brain for everything. So, it could be argued that some of my issues are 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 treatments I had. Truthfully, though, I have always been pretty clumsy.

Practice gratitude despite chemo brain. Please don't misunderstand me. I am very grateful to be alive. I am happy most of my hair grew back. I spend my time trying to help others and to enjoy life. I actively pray and practice gratitude. I regularly choose to slow down and to live in the moment. I seek distraction when I need to take a break from my worrying thoughts. I rest when I can't go on. I occupy my hands when I am anxious. I use the coping tools available to me. Still, I am still coping.

Keep your brain active. Don't use chemo brain as an excuse to shut down. Try the puzzles, games and mental exercises to keep yourself as sharp as you can be. Keep up with the research on chemo brain. Keep your doctor informed about your symptoms. Just like physical exercise, to quote an uncle-in-law "rest makes rust" so don't let your brain get rusty!

Shoot down silly cancer comments. Again, someone recently said to me, "You are brave. I couldn't have done that." Like I/we had a choice? I am still here, but no, I am not brave. We all do what we have to do to get through cancer. Hello. Cancer is a disease. I don't like it when people who don't know try to romanticize it. Please don't compare me to a soldier. Usually, I just feel like damaged goods or a walking wounded. I am happy to be here still participating in life, and I let people know that cancer is a disease and I didn't have a choice.

Enjoy life. Though it is frustrating to be foggy-brained or clumsy, I am here. Maybe I am being greedy. Everyone, cancer survivor or not, gets tired of coping at times. The truth of life is that everyone who lives has stuff to cope with and manage. Take a breath. Take notes so you do not need to hold everything in your head. Take breaks when you need them. Above all, seize the day! 

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