Chemobrain Isn't Funny

We have all attributed a slip of the tongue or a forgetful moment to chemobrain and then laughed.

OK, we all do it. We forget a date or a name of someone we know well and we look at our feet and say with a laugh, “It’s chemobrain.”

It’s time we stopped laughing at cognitive dysfunction, otherwise known as chemobrain. Chemobrain can result from a number of things related to cancer: chemotherapy drugs, the drugs used for surgery, sleep problems or the cancer itself. Changes in the body due to hormones, nutritional deficiencies, depression or increasing age can also affect our cognitive function.

Cognitive dysfunction is a mental fog that makes it hard for people to go to school or work or even get through the day. It can cause forgetfulness, lack of concentration, trouble remembering names and dates and trouble doing more than one thing at a time, called multitasking. The symptoms can last a few weeks or months and for a small percentage of people, it can go on for years.

It’s not funny when we can’t remember things, particularly when it impacts our ability to work. One friend of mine had to change her life goal when cognitive dysfunction made it impossible for her to be a trial lawyer. She no longer had the speedy recall of words required to argue a case on her feet in front of a jury. When treatment ended, she kept thinking it would get better but it didn’t.

We can thank patients for the research that has been done in this area because we were the ones who told our doctors that something was amiss. I remember discussing it in my support group in 1990. My oncologist said it was the loss of hormones from the loss of our period, but that doesn’t explain why men get it. We are finally to the point that the medical community accepts cognitive dysfunction, but there is no treatment.

For me it was very frustrating and manifested in things such as grocery shopping. I never had to make a list to go to the grocery store and could mentally go down the aisles to identify what I needed. That is no more. I would forget recipes and leave out ingredients. Lists weren’t just a help, they were a necessity.

Of course, my diagnosis was 30 years ago. Today, I attribute my forgetfulness to aging. We still don’t know what causes cognitive dysfunction so to cope with it we are back to what’s become a necessity for me — exercise to increase oxygen to the brain and lists, everywhere lists.