That feeling like your thoughts are full of fluff or treacle. That person’s name you know is up there somewhere but you just can’t quite remember. The feeling you have the concentration capacity of a sweet fuelled three year old. These are all common complaints of cancer patients after chemotherapy treatment known as chemo brain. I have struggles with all these things and often find my head feels like there is too many tabs open and it goes in to shut down. I have never had a great memory but it’s definitely jumped ship since I have been through four rounds of chemo for breast cancer.
My biggest issue is short term memory, I find it very difficult to hold information in my head. Remembering names is the hardest thing and can be quite embarrassing. I get to the end of the day with no recollection of whether I have taken my medication or not. I can struggle with simple problem arithmetic because I can’t hold figures in my head while I calculate the answer. I recently was trying to work out how much money I needed for a parking metre and found myself getting very frustrated and upset that such a simple calculation was taking me a long time to work out.
To help me understand more about why my brain seemed to be turning to mince meat I signed up for a ‘Cancer Related Cognitive Impairment’ course. The hardest thing was remembering the date it ran!!
It was brilliant with lots of tips which I’ll add at the bottom of this piece. One of the most interesting parts was about a study conducted on twin ladies, one of which had been through chemotherapy for breast cancer. This study involved the women being asked to answer memory and cognitive problems while in an MRI machine. The women’s ability to complete the problems was found to be similar but the very interesting difference was that the twin who had chemotherapy showed a lot more brain activity during the experiment. Her brain was having to work a lot harder to answer the questions. This may explain why in previous experiments cancer patients appear to still have the same level of cognitive ability but feel like their brain is slower and needs to work harder. Also meaning that they tire more quickly. This research is so important as for some time ‘chemo brain’ was believed to be a bit of a myth.
Attention and concentration also seem to be in short supply for me at the moment and our course leader used the bucket theory to explain why. If you imagine that your attention is a bucket that can only hold so much. All of the different things going on in your life fill up your bucket over the course of a day. These might include medication, anxiety, physical health, sleep, mood, time pressure, noisy environment and tasks you are working on. Once your bucket gets full you lose the ability to concentrate attention on anything new and if you are starting each day with your bucket partly full due to health issues it may fill up faster than someone in good health. This really helped me understand why I am finding it difficult to concentrate if there is a lot of background noise and that I feel frazzled more quickly. The good news is there are ways to empty your bucket and improve your attention.
Great techniques to empty your bucket are:
- Taking a break
- Removing other distractions like the tv or radio so you can focus on one task at a time.
- Make a plan to break bigger tasks down
- Use a note pad as a memory aid.
- Work when you know you are at your best.
- Have a regular bed time to improve sleep and look after yourself.
I have really tried to get better at recognising I’m getting to the point of over flow and will actually now say to my husband, “my bucket is getting full I’m going to take a break”. I also try to prioritise tasks instead of pushing myself to breaking point trying to get everything done right away. This can be very difficult as its tempting to try to slip back in to your habits and routine from before cancer treatment but it is so important to see that your body and mind may be different and a slower pace might work better for you.
Top Tips to support your memory:
- Write it down. You can go old school and use a note pad / diary. I like to use the calendar and reminder app in my phone for any appointments or jobs I need to remember to do which has an alert function to give me the nudge I often need. We also use a white board in our kitchen for reminders.
- Have a set place to keep things eg a bowl for your keys, a basket for your hand bag.
- Write a list, for odd jobs, shopping, work tasks, names and contacts for work.
- Reduce distractions such as TV or radio.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. When you are introduced to someone say their name back to them ‘Lovely to meet you John’ then repeat it in your head to help you remember.
- Use rhymes, rules or word association to help you remember.
- When you are feeling overwhelmed write down your ideas, tasks and worries to help you relieve the pressure and focus.
Do you feel like you are suffering from Chemo brain? If so, tell me in the comments how it affects you.