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Chemobrain? Get Out the Pen and Paper

When treatment for cancer causes memory problems, try taking notes to help remember.
PUBLISHED June 28, 2016
Stephanie Hammonds is a survivor of ovarian cancer and was first diagnosed in 2009. She is involved with various cancer-related speaking engagements, including with the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance's Survivors Teaching Students Program®. She is a life-long artist, freelance writer, lover of Italian cooking, mom and grandmom.
While undergoing treatment for cancer, many of us experience the irritating problem of memory trouble, which hampers recalling words, names and phrases that were once commonly known to us. I have also had trouble remembering specifics in my life, such as following through with a thought or an idea. This is what I call an overall problem with functionality. Hence, the much-used, catch-all explanation: chemobrain.

My side effects have ranged from poor concentration, to short-term memory deficits, as well as an inability to recall familiar concepts and speak in a flowing manner depending on the medication I was given. In other words, a problem remembering, speaking and coming up with the correct word or concept at the right time. Altogether aggravating.

In addition to the medication, I also put some of the blame on the stress created after being diagnosed with the illness. I feel that stress made the problem worse; expecting to forget, but trying to remember.

Another difficulty is not being able to concentrate fully. Growing older we might notice some of this, but with chemically-induced concentration failure it sort of comes on quickly. It bothered me greatly.

My old-fashioned solution: write everything down. I use pen and paper or a notebook, but others may wish to use modern gadgets to keep track of what their brain used to do. I have found it necessary to keep records of everything I have done or want to do, in the event I need to assist my wonky memory, which is most of the time.

A large calendar book with plenty of writing space is helpful to me, but I also need a notebook to fill in the blanks. I keep it handy as it’s my new, artificial memory. Basically, everything and anything I don’t want to forget gets written down.

Some examples of this include to-do lists that I number and date; goals like house repairs, finding a gardener, upcoming events that need my attention or items that I may want to read or research; and everyday tasks such as phone calls, appointments, test results and meetings.

Also, it is important to keep up with paperwork. I keep a dairy of what I send out each day. This includes cards and letters because I do not want to send doubles or entirely forget someone (it's happened).

You get the idea. Doing this exercise has helped me tremendously, or rather I should say it has helped my brain process what I don’t want to forget. It takes time. It takes thought. But it is a whole lot better than trying to recreate what you think you did and can’t recall. Plus, if you use pen and paper, you'll be improving your penmanship too!
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