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Making Metastatic Cancer Fears Work for Me
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Chemo Brain, Who Dis?

Ever walk into a room and forget what you're doing? Chemo brain made me do that daily.
PUBLISHED April 09, 2018
Justin Birckbichler is a fourth grade teacher, testicular cancer survivor and the founder of aBallsySenseofTumor.com. From being diagnosed in November 2016 at the age of 25, to finishing chemo in January 2017, to being cleared in remission in March, he has been passionate about sharing his story to spread awareness and promote open conversation about men's health. Connect with him on Instagram @aballsysenseoftumor, on Twitter @absotTC, on Facebook or via email justin@aballsysenseoftumor.com.
The chemo side effect that seemed to be most long-lasting and constant didn't make me physically sick or tired. It had more of a psychological impact. I'm talking about chemo brain.

The Mayo Clinic defines chemo brain as a "term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment," but researchers are unclear on what exactly causes it. (Based on their list of possible causes, I am guessing my experience is due to high levels of potent chemo meds.)

The best way I can describe chemo brain is that it's similar to ADHD. I find it hard to focus on things for extended periods of time and I find myself growing increasingly forgetful. I can't seem to remember things from day to day, but can remember specific events from years ago.

Additionally, I sometimes struggle a lot with word retrieval, but oddly enough not the name of the process. A good analogy for experiencing chemo brain is Drew Barrymore in the movie  “50 First Dates.” Her memory reset overnight, but she could remember things from a decade ago as clear as day.

To best illustrate some of the moments when chemo brain has struck, I kept track of some of the more notable events:
  • One of my favorite things to do on my "long weeks" was watch food challenges on YouTube. (For those of you wondering what a food challenge is, it's when a person tries to eat a lot of food or a certain amount of food in a set time frame. It's oddly fascinating, and I found it helped me to live vicariously through these random people when I didn't have much of an appetite.) I was trying to tell my mom about one of the food challenges and I was couldn't find the words to explain the restaurant that it took place in. I said, "You know, Mom. They were eating lots of shrimp at 'Seafood Olive Garden.'" Strangely enough, she knew I meant Red Lobster.
  • During the recovery phase of chemo, I went on walks during the day to build up for my stamina as I prepared to return to work. Prior to chemo, I had gone on dozens of walks, so I knew the layout of our neighborhood pretty well. Not so much anymore. I got lost on two separate days, which is amusing since our neighborhood is just a massive loop with a few smaller loops within it. One day, I took a turn too early and didn't realize it until I was back at my house and the other day I didn't take a turn when I should have. I was on the phone with my sister for one of the times and she told me that I shouldn't go on walks unsupervised. Good life advice from a teenager to her adult brother.
  • Sometimes, chemo brain causes slight bitterness on my fiancée Mallory's part. On National Pizza Day, we ordered a large pizza from our favorite pizza place. Allegedly, as I was putting away the leftovers, Mal requested that I save them for her. Apparently, I agreed to that, but the following day, I had the pizza for lunch. When Mal went to have the leftovers later in the week, she asked where they were and I said, "Um, in my belly, why?" With an exasperated sigh, she cursed chemo brain. I made up for it by making her French bread pizzas instead. This instance of accidentally eating her leftovers wasn't the only time, but I think that has more to do with me misinterpreting her words (and my general love of food) than my forgetfulness. However, I still maintain that I do not remember this so-called conversation about the leftover pizza.
  • One day, I was home alone and wanted to do a certain task in the kitchen. However, every time I got downstairs, I couldn't remember what I needed to do. I tried to do different things to help trigger my memory, but to no avail. On the fourth such endeavor, I decided to unload the dishwasher. I found ramekins in there, which triggered the memory. To no one in particular, I exclaimed, "PUDDING!" (I suddenly remembered that I wanted to make chocolate pudding.) This made me crack up hysterically, as it reminded me of Dean Winchester from Supernatural. Crazy works.
These are some comical moments from experiencing chemo brain, but it does bother me to a degree that I constantly am in a state of fog. Throughout my K12 education experience, I was in the gifted program and I have always prided myself on being pretty smart. While experiencing chemo brain, I struggled with remembering to follow through with things now, and I had to have others remind me to do things (like take medicine so I don't feel sick, although feeling sick is another good reminder).

Because of this experience, I definitely have a stronger understanding and appreciation for my students who have ADHD and will now be more cognizant of how hard they must be working to stay focused and on task. If I find myself needing to take breaks while watching a movie, I can imagine how taxing a 25+ question assessment must be for them.

But the best upside to chemo brain? It's a foolproof way out of arguments!

"Why didn't you unload the dishwasher?"

"Ummm…”
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