Chemo brain. Yep, a likely excuse and one I use often. As a young survivor of Stage III rectal cancer diagnosed at age 34, it’s my go-to for everything from forgotten grocery items to missed birthdays and generally anytime thoughts are fleeting and words evade me. Thank goodness for Outlook reminders, or I’d have been fired long before now! As humorous as I try to make it seem in my own little world, science has confirmed this very real phenomenon amongst those of us have endured chemotherapy. Now nearly seven years out of treatment, I often find myself still dealing with the impacts of this frustrating after-effect.

Among symptoms of chemo brain as reported by Mayo Clinic , disorganization, difficulty concentrating, short attention span, and short-term memory problems are cited. I don’t know if it’s my self-proclaimed ADD that causes me all these issues, but I have the glaring feeling that chemo certainly exacerbated it. Thankfully I’ve been able to function at relatively high levels, multi-tasking successfully at work and navigating the twists and turns of academia as I pursue my degree; I’ve had no issue with mastering new skills or recalling dialogue or images. I consider myself blessed, as I’ve encountered many survivor stories where folks struggled with work and daily life functions because of severe cognitive impairment.

My most recent chemo-brain exploits came as a result of routine grocery shopping trips. At one point my fridge was stocked with two bags of grapes, bought days apart, because I’d forgotten I’d already purchased some. Somehow I managed to eat them all before they went bad! Ditto on the oven cleaner, Comet, Febreze, and several other household items. The upside is that the house will be really clean, assuming I can remember to clean it.

Now, being a colorectal cancer survivor and using more toilet paper than the average person, it would’ve been handy if I’d conveniently forgotten I’d already bought some and ended up with extra. But, NO! – not the case with this commodity. I ran out instead, forgetting to purchase it altogether. Oh, the irony. Another trip back to the store…what was it I came for, again?

Other not-so-biggie chemo brain moments come in the form of:

  • Going into another room to get something and forgetting what I came for
  • Getting to work and thinking “OMG – did I already wear this outfit this week?!”
  • Calling a friend and forgetting why I called
  • Forgetting to hit the clutch before shifting gears (yep – even driving with chemo-brain can be adventurous, and hard on a tranny! Hope I can remember how to change that throw-out bearing. Where’s my impact gun?)
  • Other stuff – but I forget what they were

So while I can make fun of my own chemo brain experience, it is a very real condition and not very funny to many who have severe cognitive function issues as a result of their treatment regimens. Chemo brain is one of the many long-term treatment effects that oncologists often don’t discuss with their patients, and it is paramount that this be addressed as a potentially limiting, debilitating effect so that patients can make the best treatment decisions for themselves. I certainly was not informed of this potential effect, and it was only in doing my own research and talking with other survivors that this came to light.

Chemotherapy is a necessary evil and no doubt leaves its mark with long-term impacts such as chemo brain, amongst others. But I’ve found that by being an informed patient and knowing what to expect has allowed me to mitigate those effects with planning tools, preparation, and of course, laughing at myself. Sometimes humor is the best medicine of all.

Now, what was I supposed to be doing…?