I once left my cell phone in the refrigerator. And my car keys in a bathroom cabinet. Sometimes while talking, I lose my train of thought—my brain just goes blank and I stop in silence, on occasion never recalling where I was headed with my words. I call it chemo brain, an often-misunderstood condition characterized by mental fogginess, a result of toxic drugs that sail through the veins of cancer patients. John calls it normal. We all do wacky things with our cell phones now and then, he says. He just went on a wild search for his the other day before realizing it was strapped to his side. Chemo brain? He doesn’t think so. He might be right. In my case, at least.
Two recent studies suggest that chemotherapy is not the cause of memory and concentration problems in breast cancer patients, like me. The stress of diagnosis, not the drugs, is to blame for my forgetfulness, say researchers, who found that most women with breast cancer had slight issues with attention and learning skills before chemotherapy. Chemotherapy resulted in only a minor slowing in thinking speed—just 10% developed cognitive issues during the treatment.
Perhaps this is all true and my excuse for all things forgetful has just flown out the window. That’s OK. I’m fine with being a little cloudy without medical reason. What’s important though, is this: Breast cancer patients could be making decisions about whether or not to have chemotherapy based on stories they’ve heard about chemo brain. And that’s scary. These studies will hopefully convince folks that it’s likely diagnosis alone that messes with the brain, not the life-saving drugs that help us survive.
The message here: If your doctor says you need chemotherapy, get it. Worry later about your cell phone, your car keys, your memory lapses. Think of it this way: You should be so lucky to have a scattered head some day down the line. It will mean you’re alive.