Updated: Mar 11
How to muddle through the fog
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9 years after chemotherapy, I still have periods of that time in my life that are completely wiped from my memory. When I struggle to remember events that happened near the end of treatment, my family often consoles me with “you were bald, that’s why you don’t remember.” We have now turned it into a bit of a lighthearted joke. However during the worst of it, it was anything but a joke (read my story here). I was extremely frustrated. It didn’t help that I couldn’t see improvements in my cognitive functions for many months after treatment ended. Even then, it took years to feel as though the chemo brain had completely lifted.
Chemo brain is defined as memory and thinking problems that a patient experiences during and after certain chemotherapy treatments. Forgetting things, struggling to find the right words when having normal conversation, having trouble concentrating, feeling as though you’re in a fog, difficulty multi-tasking, and mood swings are all common symptoms.
I struggled badly with the symptoms. But through that struggle I learned a few things that helped me cope and adapt to chemo brain. I hope they help you too.
1. Show yourself some grace
Go easy on yourself. Chemo brain is real. You have a medical condition that is shown to be the reason for your loss of brain function (among other things). You’re lack of cognitive abilities does not mean that you're stupid, it’s the chemotherapy doing it to you. Give yourself a break and permission to not be “with it” mentally.
2. Tell the people close to you
They need to have a heads up as to what exactly chemo brain is, the symptoms, and what you need from them. Share what you just learned above with them, better yet, share this post with them. Most people are unaware of it's existence yet when they find out, they will be understanding and do all that they can to help.
3. Set alarms on your smartphone for medicines
You will have medicines out the wah-zoo to manage. And chemo brain is not very helpful with such an important task. Luckily, you can go ahead and set alarms on your phone for the times you need to take your medicines. When the alarm goes off, you’ll know to take your meds. Get more tips on managing cancer medicines here (Join the newsletter to be notified when this post goes live).
4. Leave notes to yourself
Buy some sticky notes and place them in places around the house where you know you will see them. You’ll find “Go to Walgreens tomorrow” on your bathroom mirror. Take the note with you in the morning, so you don’t forget again. I know I would constantly think “I don’t need to write the note, I’ll remember” …but if you're like me, no…no you won’t. Just write the note and save yourself some stress.
You can also set reminders on your smart phone labeled with the task at a designated time.
5. Designate spots for highly used items
I was constantly losing things. My keys, my purse, my shoes. It was so extremely frustrating, especially when I was already physically exhausted from treatment and having to run around the house trying to find my phone. When I would finally find the lost items, they were often in random weird places.
Therefore, I strongly suggest having a designated spot for your items and KEEP THEM THERE. Take your shoes off right at the door. Put your purse on the table every time you get home. Keep your phone by your chair. Make it a point to not set things down wherever, but to do it with intention in the intended spot. That way, you’ll know where to find those pesky keys. Get into the habit now, so that it’s not something you forget to do during chemo. Once you start getting into the habit, it will help keep you on track.
You could also try adding some "item trackers" to main items such as your keys, the remote, or any other item you find yourself constantly loosing track of.
6. Use the planner
If you haven’t stumbled across this post yet, you'll definitely want to go read it. It’s a great explanation of why and how I used a notebook during my cancer treatment. It was a life saver. If you make it a habit to check it daily, you will truly find that it helps you keep track of the important things that are easily mismanaged or forgotten due to chemo brain.
For example, if you have a pre-chemo medicine that needs to be taken only on the day before chemo, write it down in your calendar section as soon as you have your chemo schedule from your oncologist.
7. Have a backup plan
For the important things, have additional reminders. Do you have a really big important date coming up? Don’t rely just on yourself and your method of “remembering.” Because honestly, if you’re like me, you’ll forget to set the actual reminder. And then what? It’s forgotten.
Does your child have a special event coming up? Ask the people in your life to help remind you. Text your mom the date and time and ask her to remind you a few times between then and now, and especially the day before.
8. Get enough rest
During and after chemotherapy when I would normally have been just tired, I was completely exhausted, to the point to where it was hard to function. Even without chemo brain, sleep can play a major role in your brain function. With chemo brain, that’s intensified. Make sure to get enough rest both physically and mentally.
9. Slow down
I was slower for many reasons overall physically, but my thinking was literately slowed down as well. I constantly felt as though I was in a fog. And what happens when you drive through fog? You drive slower. The same concept applies with your thinking…expect to just be slower with chemo brain. The sooner you accept your new, temporary speed, the easier it will be to adapt without feeling frustrated with yourself.
10. Don’t multi-task
I was a multi-tasking queen before cancer. I could juggle it all. However, during treatment I often found myself getting confused if I tried to do more than one thing at a time. I simply wasn’t able to keep track of what was going on. It ended up taking much longer trying to figure out where I left off than if I were to have just done the tasks separately. I learned to just stick to one task at a time.
Chemo brain is hard and extremely frustrating to deal with. The good news is? By implementing the steps above it is manageable. If you're looking for some items that might help, I suggest checking out this list I've made called "chemo brain" here.
Do you have something that you're struggling with or a new idea that might help others? Tell me in the comments below.
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