When Memory Lane Veers Into Cancer Highway


Cancer is complicated enough while we are in it. How important are specific memories and details as we focus on survivorship into, hopefully, an old age that may bring natural memory loss?

I like to think I have a good memory for both important and insignificant details. Some memories are lovely. Other times, they drop right out of my brain. Because mymother had dementia, any lapse can give me pause.

Lately I am realizing that when it comes to cancer, maybe I should be gentle on myself. I say this because in the process of answering a friend’s questions recently, I ended up plunging into not just my brain, but also a storage container to be able to commiserate. I was left wondering just how much we should hold onto.

For example, blue dye. Was I injected with blue dye? I had no memory of what color dye was used, or if it was, which led me to pull out a narrative record of the mastectomy written by the surgeon. Yes, it said, blue dye was injected to help locate sentinel lymph nodes. Question answered.

What does it mean that I forgot the color of the dye? Maybe the color was not important in the grand scheme of things. I did remember that sentinel nodes were tested before the mastectomy could proceed.

The summary held other important revelations, the biggest of which was that both of my tumors were invasive. My memory was that only one was. Where had my mind been? Although I had gone into surgery with the diagnosis of an in situ (non-invasive) tumor and come out with a diagnosis of invasive cancer including two tumors, I persisted in thinking in situ.

How could I have thought that? Then I recalled how the surgeon drew a picture to explain what she found. That memory blossomed like a video, the picture illustrating how one tumor sent out cells to create a second satellite-tumor. I could recreate that drawing for you today. Why, then, did my memory play tricks? Maybe I was experiencing information overload.

Reading the surgeon’s report, I also began to question why I had not felt the tumor closer to the surface of my skin, one that was already what the report called palpable. It had not been palpable to me. Maybe, though, I missed clues? What if I had noticed earlier? What else had I done wrong?

Along with reviewing medical records to spark my memory to help with my friend’s questions, I probed journals. I am not sure how helpful it was for me to find the entry that described my first day back at work, a week after the mastectomy, where I noted as an afterthought, “It hurts.” I prefer the memory that I sailed through the return to my job with resilience and zest.

Mindful of my ageing mind, I asked myself, “What’s up with these surprises?” Realistically, cancer can give a person too much information to hold onto, which is why I saved lab reports, journals (personal and medical), medical notes, medical bills, insurance statements, greeting cards, etc.

In the moment, I did what I had to do and moved on. I also hypothesize that I have needed to gloss over some memories, focusing on what each day presented and moving on, to cope with a year of cancer, my mother’s decline and death and my divorce.

This is what I know: memory Lane, when it veers onto Cancer Highway, is full of potholes. Sometimes we get mentally jostled. While I am thankful that I learned more about my medical history, discovering holes in my memory made me want to check into a hotel with a lavender-scented spa to recover from the drive.

I am going to practice saying, “I don’t remember.” If not for my mother’s dementia, I could have done that with my friend. She certainly did not expect me to suffer to help her.

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