My Brain on Chemo

2 min read

For a long time, doctors have been unsure of whether brain fogginess during chemo comes from the chemo drugs themselves or simply from the stress of going through cancer treatment.

When I went through chemo, I signed up to take part in a study to track my mental abilities as I went through treatment. Every month or so during chemo, I took a series of cognitive tests: remembering words, manipulating shapes, or connecting dots as fast as I could. Since my results were “blinded,” meaning the data was anonymous for the sake of objectivity, I will never know how I did.

Let me tell you though, those tests got more and more difficult for me as chemo progressed. Judging from a sample of one person (me) -- I think “chemo brain” is real.

By the time I was halfway through my chemo regimen, I became a real noodle head. When I tried to read something, by the time I got to the last sentence in a paragraph, I could not remember what I had read in the first sentence.

After my chemo ended, the effects continued for several months. Three weeks after my last chemo infusion, on my daughter’s 10th birthday, she asked that I make “birthday marshmallows” for her class. (She had a crush on a boy who couldn’t eat gluten, so the usual classroom birthday cupcakes wouldn’t do.) I’m a cooking nerd -- so of course, I know how to make homemade marshmallows! It basically involves mixing egg whites, gelatin, and sugar and then whisking them in a standing mixer for about 15 minutes. I’d done it several times before. Well, after chemo, I couldn’t even follow a simple recipe. I messed up the marshmallows three times, going through so many eggs that I had to send my husband to the store to get more.

Thankfully, my chemo brain got better over time. I’ve talked to others, though, who feel that they never return to their baseline level of mental sharpness.

If you notice a change in your thinking, let your medical team know. Cognitive training can help you deal with the worst effects. Technology -- smartphone reminders and the like -- can help. So can memory aids.