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6 Ways to Recognize Chemo Brain and What You Can Do About It

It sounds like a Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor or maybe a kid's board game. It's neither. Chemo brain is the happy name that's been given to the serious effect that chemotherapy has on the cognitive function of cancer patients.
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I just completed a four-session workshop on chemo-brain. It was extremely informative, but I have to say, the phrase "chemo brain" seems a little light-hearted to me. It sounds like a Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor or maybe a kid's board game. It's neither. Chemo brain is the happy name that's been given to the serious effect that chemotherapy has on the cognitive function of cancer patients.

Before I was diagnosed, age had already played some tricks with my memory. We've all lost our keys, misplaced our wallets and opened the refrigerator door only to forget what we're looking for. I remember one time, long before my treatment, telling someone that I couldn't find my cell phone, to which they replied, "You're talking on it!"

While absentmindedness is certainly one symptom of the neurotoxicity of chemotherapy, some of the other tricks your brain plays on you are pretty tricky.

Here's what I've found:

You not only lose your train of thought, you don't even know the name of the station.

In the middle of a sentence, I have totally forgotten the subject about which I am speaking. Now, if I plan to have a lengthy conversation, I start out by telling the person that I might forget what I'm talking about. You don't have to go into a lengthy discussion. You can simply say, "I have a lot on my mind today so excuse me if I forget what I'm talking about." I've found it actually makes people pay more attention to what I'm saying.

You make up words or call things by another name.

My daughter recently left the hair straightening iron turned on. When I mentioned it to her, I said, "Next time, don't forget to turn off the fire-ling." It took her a minute to understand what I meant, but it turned out that I'd invented a pretty cool word. And it's not half as bad as hearing someone say, "Heigth" as in "length, width, height." I've already coined a number of phrases in my life like "Frankendating" -- the phenomenon of dating several guys at the same time because each has only one decent attribute, e.g., one is funny, one is smart, one is sexy; and "Lilypadding" -- when someone jumps into a relationship the second after ending one.

Your words get twisted on their way out of your mouth.

And speaking of getting off the train: When my daughter came up to see me, I asked her if "the crain was trowded." I actually delight in these crazy twists of the tongue and when it happens, I will repeat them several times.

You mix up your metaphors.

Just yesterday, I said, "I'll burn that bridge when I come to it" and a few weeks ago, "That's a horse from a different mother." Well, at least I have an excuse. I remember a friend who was quite brilliant once said; "I'm not going to put all my chickens in one basket." I guess it happens to the best of us.

You have short-term memory loss.

Frequently, I'll watch a show on TV or go to a movie and then, the next day, have absolutely no idea what it was about. I guess I can chalk it up to bad television or cinema. Heck, I still know every word to every Beatles' song. Isn't that what's really important??

You have difficulty concentrating on a single task.

I have no excuse for this except that I've never done it before. I've always watched TV, surfed the Web and knitted at the same time. Concentrating on one thing is soooo inefficient.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't mean to make light of any of these symptoms. Suffering from chemo-brain is not like your run-of-the-mill forgetfulness. It usually happens more frequently and when it does, it can be scary. For most people it's a temporary condition and its good to know there are things you can do to help myself. In the workshop, they recommended carrying a notepad, getting plenty of sleep, meditating and exercise. That last one seems to be the cure to almost everything. Or, you can go to the store and buy a pint of "chemo-brain" -- it contains swirling thoughts, makes you nuts and could cause sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.