A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at hipstermomblog.com
How do you heal your mind when faced with cognitive impairment after cancer treatment?
It started out as a pause that turned into a long, awkward moment of silence. I began to panic, unable to find the right words during my presentation. With multiple people across the globe listening in as I presented a PowerPoint deck that I knew by heart, the silent, pregnant pause was louder than a bomb going off in my ears.
My hands began to sweat. I forced myself to say something, anything, so that they would all know I was still there. I sputtered out a different word, one that didn't convey the meaning I was looking for but was close enough for the people on the call to understand my point. I continued on with the rest of the deck, relieved when my colleague stepped in to take over presenting the remaining slides.
Later, I would wonder if they all assumed I had been distracted by something else — like a WhatsApp message or an email – which led to such uncharacteristic silence during a work meeting. I wondered if I should fess up and tell my client and colleague that I essentially had a "brain fart" and couldn't recall the right words that I needed to use in that moment, to prove that I was with them and hadn't gotten distracted by something else. Had it been a video conference call, they all would have seen me opening and closing my mouth like a fish without uttering a sound.
I live in a constant world of shame and frustration, and I do my best to just keep my mouth shut. But I can no longer ignore or deny how the cognitive dysfunction that resulted from my cancer treatment is impacting my daily life. It's more than just recall and word choice, it's also memory loss and difficulty staying on task. I can no longer effectively multi-task. Something always gets forgotten, like the dinner I burned weeks ago or the RSVP email that I never sent.
My neurologist recommended Ritalin to treat the attention issues, but I'm not ready to medicate for this condition. I hired an ADHD coach to work with me over the course of 10 weeks, on tips and techniques to help improve my executive functioning skills. As a small business owner, I'm not willing to give up on my career because of these challenges. I just have to work harder and smarter to compensate for these new shortcomings.
During a recent trip to visit my parents, my mom gave me a calendar journal. Twenty-five years my senior, she has been writing everything down in a calendar now for years. No longer comfortable relying on her memory, she has taken steps to make sure she doesn't miss an important appointment or meeting. I appreciated the gift and packed it into my bag, where it has been ever since. I certainly didn't expect such cognitive issues in my early 40's, but I also won't stand on ceremony because I've gotten here a lot earlier than other people.
Resigned to have to write everything down moving forward, I forged ahead only to discover an unexpected new challenge. Remembering that I need to write things down is a new part of my everyday life.