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Feeling Foggy?

There is a fine line between doing your research and throwing your computer across the room because you hate what you just read. That happened to me when I was trying to figure out chemo brain, and why it was taking so long to go away. Sadly, I’m not alone. It is estimated that as many as 75% of cancer patients have experienced mental confusion during their treatment. The Mayo Clinic reports that signs and symptoms of chemo brain may include the following:

  • Being unusually disorganized

  • Confusion

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Difficulty finding the right word

  • Difficulty learning new skills

  • Difficulty multitasking

  • Feeling of mental fogginess

  • Short attention span

Guess who scored 100% on that list? What deepened my frustration and anxiety, however, were the statements from cancer centers like Dana Farber, claiming that chemo brain often goes away after 6-9 months. Why was it then, that one year post treatment I threw my first holiday party for 24 people and panicked when I couldn’t make it happen. My sister had to help me plan everything, figure out menus, and even who to invite. They tell me the party went well. I’m not really sure though, because an hour before the party began I was opening a large can, lost focus, and sliced my hand open. My kids took me to instacare for stitches and my sister and husband managed the party. So don’t tell me chemo brain goes away quickly. I’ve lived it for a very long time.

Things do get better with time, but be aware that your brain parts might end up a little shuffled around. I finally got serious about dealing with my own mental changes when I talked with a woman who suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. She told me you first have to accept that your brain is different, and then practice new skills to fill in the gaps. It took me awhile to reach acceptance, but once I stopped waiting to get back to normal I learned some handy tips for coping with chemo brain. The nice thing about the following suggestions is that they help with current issues, and build good habits for the future too. Try these tips:

Make lists. Groceries, errands, carpools, phone calls, bills, medicines to take, etc. Cross them off when you complete a task.

Use a planner or personal organizer. I’m a big fan of productivity planners. I used Passion Planner for a few years and now I’m loving my new Roterunner. I still use the calendar on my smartphone, but writing things down really helps.

Sleep. There is no substitute for 7-9 hours of sleep. Congratulations if you’re already doing this. It’s a tough one!

Keep your mind active. Do sudoku and word games, or attend a class that interests you.

Avoid distractions. Work, read, and do your thinking in an uncluttered, peaceful environment. If that’s impossible, buy some noise-cancelling headphones.

Have conversations in quiet places. This minimizes distractions and lets you concentrate better on what the other person is saying.

Be active. Move more.

Repeat information aloud after someone gives it to you, and write down important points.

Tell people what’s happening. Explain to your family that you forget things. They can help you and cheer you on.

Seek help if your symptoms make you sad or anxious. See a counselor, your doctor, or an oncology social worker if you feel like you can’t cope.

What are your suggestions for dealing with chemo brain? I am grateful that other cancer survivors know what it means to be confused and forgetful. I also know that so many of you are strong and resourceful and are making it through. Keep up the good work!

by Bethanie Newby

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