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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Am I getting old or is chemo brain coming back?
Recently, I've felt a sense of worry creep over me—and it's not related to my well-known companions of scanxiety (since my scans a month ago were perfectly clear) or fear of another lump forming on my remaining testicle (since my balltrasound two months ago was also clear).
Rather, it's something that can't be measured by conventional methods: the potential return of chemo brain.
I suffered pretty heavily from chemo brain during and after treatment. I got lost in my own neighborhood multiple times, couldn't remember why I would enter a room and majorly struggled with word retrieval. (Shout out to my mom for recognizing that “Seafood Olive Garden” meant “Red Lobster”!)
Around the 12-month mark post-chemotherapy, I noted that my chemo brain was doing significantly better. This still holds true at the 18-month mark — I have completed reading 100 books in 2018, about four times the amount from this time last year. I don't have difficulty deciding what words I want to use, as evidenced by my frequent use of “perseverate” in everyday conversation.
It's my short-term memory and focus that's been bothering me. While I am not getting lost in my own neighborhood anymore, I do still walk into rooms sometimes and forget what I am doing. Other times, I'll switch from Twitter to Google Chrome to research something I saw on the former app. But by the time I get to the latter, I can't remember what triggered me to visit that app. Occasionally, I can't immediately remember all of the plot details in a few of the books I've read. I also realize sometimes I have a song stuck in my head for hours, which makes it almost impossible to focus on other things. To be fair, this last point may be more due to Hugh Jackman's and Zac Efron's angelic voices in "The Other Side" from The Greatest Showman.
While this may seem insignificant, it does bother me. I honestly have no idea if it is due to latent chemo brain that has reared its ugly head again or if I am just getting older, at the ripe old age of 27. Much like the effects of chemo brain, the research around this phenomenon is fuzzy and hard to pinpoint.
I don't want to perseverate on the point of how this feels and the frustration of the unknown. At my next check up with my oncologist, I plan to ask him what this might be related to. But that's not until December.
What I can do right now is focus on what I can do to help mitigate these small annoyances. To-do lists help tremendously, including a bullet point to write (and edit) this piece. I personally prefer Google Keep, but any other app, or even pencil and paper (I've heard that's a thing — see above about being 27), would work just fine. It keeps me organized and ensures everything gets done.
When I forget why I switched apps or walk into a room, I will retrace my footprints (either digitally or physically) until it trips a switch and reminds me. When I can't remember some of the finer points in the books I've read, I refer back to my Goodreads reviews to trigger it. Not only does this help me remember, it also ensures that I'm leaving good feedback for the author, which is something I'm sure they appreciate. Hint, hint — remember this line when I eventually write my own book. These small, but actionable measures help me regain a sense of control and make me realize that I can be in control of staying ahead of this fog.
I'm writing this for those of you out there who are like me, wondering if your continued impairment with memory and focus is something related to chemo brain or if it's just part of the aging process.
We may not always remember things right away, but there's one thing I don't want you to forget: you're not alone.