Building cognitive skills after chemobrain

Earlier this month the MIT News published an article titled, “The rise and fall of cognitive skills.”  It discussed research that found different types of thinking skills peak at different times in life.  I particularly like this part:

… crystallized intelligence — the accumulation of facts and knowledge … showed a later peak, in the late 60s or early 70s.

People who participated in this online study demonstrated their ability to build their vocabulary continued to increase into their 60s and 70s, which indicates their ability to accumulate facts and knowledge also continued to increase.  This is awesome!   As a person in my 50s with cognitive impairments from cancer treatment, I’m reassured to know that at least some parts of my brain may continue to improve.  Woohoo!

Now if I can just remember what I learn …



Neuropsych Serendipity

I visited the Virginia Mason Neuropsychology and Rehabilitation department today for a consult about dealing with my chemobrain symptoms.

I expected the appointment to be an introductory session: the counselor and I would spend the time recounting my cancer history, detailing my symptoms, explaining the chemobrain study in which I participated at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center last year, learning about therapy options, and discussing possible neurocognitive testing.

Turns out the Ph.D. psychologist I saw was the lead researcher for last year’s chemobrain study!

She knew me.  She knew my history. She had access to my previous neurocognitive results from the trial.  The available therapy options were the techniques she and her team had taught me last year.

So, we spent a VERY productive hour talking about coping strategies for my particular symptoms and situations.

Might this be cosmic payback for volunteering for clinical studies?

Serendipity rocks.


brain 2 graphic

Why I’m Behind on My Patient Advocacy Projects

Today is a relatively typical day.  I’ve been up for 2.5 hours.  I haven’t tackled any major projects yet. Why?

6:50–7:20 AM
Wake up a few minutes before the alarm, take anti-reflux pill, check email, get up, step on scale, be bummed (again) about my post-cancer-treatment weight gain, resolve to spend at least 30 minutes on the treadmill this afternoon, brush cats

7:20-8:20 AM
Get dressed, help with family breakfast, help son get ready for school, help hubby with shopping list, eat breakfast (had to wait an hour after taking anti-reflux pill), log food intake in LoseIt! (only 360 calories for breakfast–yay!), take cancer pills, check Twitter, pet cats

8:20-8:45 AM
Load dishwasher, have several writing ideas flood into my head while washing big pots, clean up mess I made on the counter while distracted by writing ideas, realize my chemobrain has forgotten all writing ideas, play with cats

8:45-9:20 AM
Check Facebook while drinking milk/coffee, look at pile of urgent family paperwork, decide I should start on a lung cancer advocacy article, go see what cat is playing with, write blog post instead (with feline oversight)

But the day is young, the cats are now napping, and coffee is kicking in.  I still have hope I shall actually accomplish something today.

Oh, look, the hummingbird feeder is empty …


Changing My Mind: Cancer Side Effects, Phase 2

Cancer and its treatments cause cognitive and psychological changes for some patients. Even if we aren’t aware of a physical reason for it, it’s just as real as neuropathy and tissue damage.

The cognitive side effects of cancer treatment are known in the media as “chemobrain,”
though the symptoms can be caused by more than just chemotherapy. My cognitive symptoms are typical: problems with memory, attention, multitasking, word finding. I not only can’t remember details of an event, I don’t remember the event even happened. I lose track of what I intend to say in the middle of a sentence. When my son steps into the room to ask me a question, just noticing his presence is enough for me to lose track of what I’m typing. I tell my husband to give me a banana, when what I tried to ask for was milk.

Some changes wax and wane with treatments. The prednisone taken for lung inflammation gives my entire family a new appreciation of “Roid Rage.” The gabapentin taken for nerve pain and sleep serves me brain fog with breakfast.

Some changes can be due to the cancer itself. Tumors and blood clots in the brain or lungs can reduce oxygen supply to the brain and interfere with brain function. I’ll deal with that if it happens to me (knock on my wooden head).

Some changes which I had attributed to treatment-related fatigue persist even as fatigue improves. My patience runs thinner than it did before cancer treatment. Sometimes I become irritable or angry for no discernible reason. Towards the end of the day, I have more difficulty seeing the other side of a disagreement or bestowing benefit of the doubt. I generally try to be home and winding down by 8 PM so I don’t “hit the wall” and run out of positive energy amidst unsuspecting people.

Some cognitive changes are positive ones. My cancer journey gives me a greater understanding of those who face challenges navigating physical barriers, communicating thoughts clearly, or remembering instructions for a task. When someone with a chronic illness tells me they don’t have the energy for some activity, I know exactly what they’re talking about.

The largest change I see in me is … a change in perspective. I feel a drive to LIVE each day, not just let it meander by me. I’m more inclined to be choosy about how I spend my remaining time (however long that might be) and with whom I spend it. I’m less willing to be with people who dwell on small talk, speak ill of others frequently, or lack compassion. I seek out positive, creative people who are willing to reveal their true selves, share mutual interests, and strive to make a difference in the world. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

So, cancer is changing my mind. I’m living more consciously than ever before. Bi-monthly PET scans remind me the Fates could cut my lifeline at any moment. I intend to make that lifeline as strong and as shiny as possible, for as long as possible.