February 10, 2023
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Photography by zheng long/Stocksy United
Chemo brain or brain fog can be a frustrating side effect of breast cancer treatments. But making improvements to areas like your exercise and sleep routines can make a big difference.
The world felt as if it was caving in around me as I looked around the parking lot in a panic. I was in a new city, with no phone, and had no recollection of where my husband said he would be, although he had only told me moments before.
I was weeks into chemotherapy, and this had become a common occurrence as of late. I sat down on the curb outside of a TJ Maxx with my brain cloudy, contemplating how I’d gotten into this predicament as tears rimmed my eyes.
The realization that I couldn’t remember things like my own phone number at 33 years old was a hard pill to swallow. I had swallowed it, along with my pride, the moment I heard the words “the tumor was positive for cancer.” What followed was brain fog I wasn’t prepared for and the panic it elicited.
But if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have been so scared.
Brain fog, or “chemo brain,” is the name given to memory issues and cognitive impairment that accompany many types of chemotherapy. Symptoms of it can include:
The average person who undergoes chemotherapy may experience many different levels of chemo brain during or shortly after treatment. For some, this side effect can be long-term and very frustrating.
For myself, it was by far the worst side effect I had, and it remained the longest. The exact cause of chemo brain is unknown, but many of the drugs for treating cancer and their side effects have been linked together.
My memory issues started about 2 weeks into treatment and became worse as my treatment progressed. I spoke with my oncologist and was given a list of things that may help combat the brain fog as treatment ended.
Here are 5 things I did to help relieve the most frustrating part of my cancer treatment.
The first and most important thing that helped me on my road to recovery was making detailed lists.
I found that the less focused I was on my lists, the harder it was for me to remain on task. I broke down bigger chores, like cleaning the kitchen, by compartmentalizing all the different areas I needed to work on such as counters, floors, fridge, dishes, etc.
Keeping a master list and a daily list also helped immensely. My master list contained all the things I needed to accomplish to keep my own life and my household running smoothly when my memory would otherwise prevent it. Starting and ending my day with a chart of things broken down to their basics helped in ways I never would’ve thought possible.
Once I had my day planned, I focused on exercise. Exercising the body also exercises the brain. To me, exercise was the most important tool in my arsenal to get better.
When you exercise, your body releases “happy” chemicals into your brain, which can help relieve stress. Exercise also helps regulate emotions and sleep patterns, and improves cognitive abilities such as memory function.
I couldn’t read a single paragraph during my treatment and remember what I had read when I was finished. My inability to retain new information became detrimental to my job, my family, and even my ability to hold a conversation. But after exercising for 30 minutes a day, I noticed a difference in my memory abilities within the first few weeks.
The daily exercise I was putting in started to help me in more ways than weight loss or memory function. It helped me get better sleep, which was my third tool in relieving brain fog.
Sleep has been linked to supporting healthy brain function and development. It’s known to fend off illness and boost immune system health.
Making sure to get adequate sleep not only helped my memory return but helped my overall health.
When I woke up in the mornings, I put my fourth tool to use: Meditation. Taking time to be present with myself when it felt like the world was crashing down around me was immeasurably helpful.
I started by finding short meditation videos on YouTube. Instructors with soothing voices helped me calm my mind when it was otherwise manic or completely blank. Clearing my head of clutter helped center me before facing each of the tasks on my to-do list head-on.
Playing games was the most fun tool I used to improve my brain function. We all remember the game “memory” from our childhood where we had to turn over two cards. If we were lucky and paid attention to the participants before us, we could remember where a matching pair was located.
I started my memory recall with that very game. I found it at a local Walmart and brought it with me when I knew I’d have to sit in a waiting room for a while. I later downloaded a few different memory games on my cell phone such as Mahjong or Match 3D. Both games require you to remember where two pieces are and give you a time limit to complete each task.
When I began, I found these games frustrating. I felt like a small child who had been handed an assignment well above my grade level. But after a while, finding those tiny toys on the screen became a triumphant task.
I am now 4 years past my diagnosis and thriving. I underwent multiple surgeries, many weeks of chemotherapy, and years of bouncing back from it, but I can proudly say that I have. Making the time to improve my cognitive health after such a hit was hard but very necessary to get my life back.
I often think back to that day in the parking lot of a TJ Maxx where I was panicked, lost, and afraid. I wish I could hug that version of myself and tell her that someday, she’ll remember this moment and smile. I am just so happy to be here and to remember those moments I otherwise would’ve taken for granted.
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