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 …



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.