I Don’t Need 20 Monkeys Reciting Shakespeare to Know Chemobrain

My chemo’d brain and five ways that help me remember not to forget.

One of the biggest side effects of cancer treatment for me has been on my brain. I simply can’t remember how many times I’ve forgotten to remember something that I should not have ever forgotten—yes, it’s that complicated. And the words, I forget the words. You know just that one word that you know that you know, but you don’t know when you need to know? It seems like there would be a simple fix, but there is also that whole concentration and brain fog thing, too.

I’m not going to try and prove to you that my memory is horrible or the impacts that treatment has on the brain. I’m not going to give you some scientific data based on twenty monkeys who were radiated, given chemo for six months and then asked to recite Shakespeare from memory. I’m just going to give you a peek inside my head. Scary. First however, my treatment background: 1983: Radiation to my neck, 1985: radiation to my chest and chemo, 1988: radiation to my abdomen and chemo and 1998: chemo and a bone marrow transplant.

So here’s what being inside my head is like: Why is the dog barking? Did I take my medicine? I need to call the Dr. and set up that appointment for my heart. I think it was for my heart. Wait, what medicine do I need to take again? Did I already take my medicine? Is my dog barking because I didn’t feed him? No I fed him and I took him out—I remember. Squirrel! Wait, why is there poop on the floor? Is it because I didn’t take him out? Did I take my medicine? Let me just take my medicine in case I forgot. Why is there still poop on the floor? Why is the dog barking? Do I need to take him out? I need to call the doctor because I think I took my medicine twice. Wait, where is my phone—and why do I need it again?

Often my brain can feel like I’m in a noisy crowd at a concert, where three bands are playing simultaneously during a fireworks show. I know all of the songs that are being played, but I have forgotten the names and who sings them.

Now that I’ve given you the spiel on my brain, I’ll also tell you what I’ve done to help me deal with the day-to-day.

“I just call, to say…”

This one is simple. It would be cool if you could have Lionel Ritchie call and remind you to go to your doctor’s appointment, take your medicine and let your dog out, but anyone can help here. Have mom, a good friend, your wife, call to remind you of the important things you need to do.

The Notebook

No, I’m not talking about that movie from several years ago that made everyone need counseling, anti-depressants and a comfort animal. I just mean a simple notebook that you will get in the habit of actually using. I take mine everywhere. I write down notes, simple notes about everything. Organizing my “to dos” in a list helps me feel like I’m in control of my grey matter.

“Google It”

I use the Gmail calendar. With Gmail calendars, you can download an app onto your smartphone that will pull in dates and reminders—and one of the biggest reasons why I love the Google calendar is because you can add up to five reminders. Imagine having five people screaming at you to take your meds. How could you possibly forget?

Silence!

One of the best things for my already scrambled brain is silence. This means no Facebook, no smartphone, no TV—nothing but, well, silence. Simply lying down, taking a walk and unwinding. My brain tends to get seriously over-stimulated after a long day—and a little quiet time helps me reboot.

The Mental Checklist

This could just be a weird thing that I do, but if I know that my next day is going to be busy, I like to sit down the night before, visualize, and mentally walk through everything that needs to get done. This, along with phone call reminders, a list and Google reminders, significantly increases the chances of me remembering to put on pants before taking my dog outside the next morning.