Experiencing a Double Whammy: Chemo and COVID-19 Fog

April 20, 2021
Jane Biehl Ph.D.
Jane Biehl Ph.D.

Jane is a ten-year survivor of a very rare form of cancer Myelodysplastic Syndrome. She has enjoyed several exciting careers including a librarian, counselor, teacher, and writer. She loves to write about surviving cancer, overcoming hearing loss, and her hearing ear service dog, Sita.

A cancer survivor describes what “chemo fog” is and writes how many people are now experiencing a double whammy — “pandemic fog.”

Most cancer survivors realize the impact of “chemo fog.” Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has lasted more than a year with no end in sight; many of us are experiencing a double whammy — “pandemic fog.”

I confess that before the pandemic, I used to go to another room or the basement and forget why I was there.Now, however, I am in the same room and experience memory lapses. I gaze around and cannot remember what I was going to do next. My computer and office, living room and dining room all adjoin each other, and I will stand there circling around aimlessly, trying to remember if I was going to send an email, turn on the television or clean off my table!

READ MORE: Slowing Down is OK

I will sit at my computer unable to concentrate on my writing and stare out the window doing nothing. It takes twice as long for me to write an article or send a card. I feel like I am in slow-slower-slowest motion. I know I am getting older and remember my parents complaining everything took them longer, but this feels different. It borders on ridiculous. I presently am not on any chemo, so I have been trying to figure out what is wrong. I even thought maybe my blood counts are so low it is affecting my concentration.

Then I found an article in the New York Times and a light bulb dawned. It was titled “We have all hit a wall, Confronting late-stage pandemic burnout, with everything from edible to Exodus” by Sarah Lyall.

As a counselor, I have attended workshops and done lectures on how stress affects our mental health, and the horrible effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, when there is an accident, an assault or another triggering event which can cause PTSD, there is usually (not always) an end, which gives us time for our bodies and minds to recuperate. There is not an end to the pandemic and our bodies and minds are not created to process this.

We all remember from psychology the “Fight, Flight, Freeze” reactions where we run from danger, fight the danger, or freeze like deer in the headlights. However, this horrible disease is not affecting us the same way. We are constantly asking ourselves when the other shoe will drop. When will we be able to return to our work offices or school? If we have lost a job, how do we find another one where we feel safe? Will we lose the job we already have? Is it safe to go out? What is happening with the new variants we hear about? We have so many questions with no answers.

I personally feel the stress of not taking vacations away from my home. It is the only way I can get away from my computer and writing. I can empathize with people working full-time jobs from home who never get away.

The article notes that many people much younger than me are not enjoying offices at home. They worry that they are getting less done. They describe a feeling like they are moving in quicksand. Just to write a simple email seems to take forever. They are having problems concentrating.

Think how this impacts cancer survivors. We are already forced to slow down because of the cancer, then the pandemic hits and we feel like every single step is an effort. We are exhausted from fighting both wars — the pandemic and cancer. So what can we do?

I find watching the news less does help. Remember when this whole pandemic started there were no sports, no new television shows, everything was a rerun and we resorted to watching the news. I often listened to the governor every day to see what was happening. I no longer need to do that. We need to take a break — even if it is to watch “The Crown” or Hallmark movies!We should allow ourselves to daydream when our minds wander, knowing that is often when we get the most creative. We need to write everything down because we are forgetting and cannot tell ourselves we will remember. Life is different now.

Somehow, some way, some time, this nightmare will end. And maybe — just maybe — we will find going slower and being less productive is not so bad after all!

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.