Secondary breast cancer: Chemo Brain Blues

Ismena Clout
chemotherapy getty blogs 225x300 Secondary breast cancer: Chemo Brain Blues

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Living with secondary breast cancer means there is a certain inevitability to having chemotherapy multiple times. Chemotherapy can be a real double edged sword; good as it really can work well and give you more of that most precious of things… time, but bad because each time it makes you feel more ill than you did before.

Chemo does rock and so far has been good for me but it’s no walk in the park. It can leave you feeling much more rotten. Back in 2010 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer metastases in my liver, bones and lungs I wasn’t feeling all that ill, perhaps a bit off and run down but not as ill as my scans were showing me to be. Then I had eight rounds of Taxotere and then I really felt ill!  But actually it was saving my life.

During that chemo I felt very flu like; utterly exhausted, my fingers hurt and I couldn’t sleep well but overall I did well compared to other patients. There is one side effect though that is a bit more elusive, some oncologists have even suggested it doesn’t exist. For me it’s one of the harder to live with… the effect chemo has on your brain.

Chemo Brain is the slang term used for this and it’s deeply frustrating.  For me I can never remember the name of things and find myself in business meetings grappling for the name of an organisation or piece of equipment, belying my years of experience and making me look stupid. There is also a more general effect of a complete lack of motivation and concentration, doing any work very hard and spending time watching telly instead, so very easy!

One oncologist was very dismissive to me about chemo brain, so you can imagine my delight when my stepmom told me about a radio show she listened to where they talked about a study into Chemo Brain and that it really does exist… cue a little happy jig that it wasn’t all in my head! The story  is here.

125 women in the USA had PET scans before chemo and six months after. The scans after showed decreased blood flow to key areas of the brain, these areas are responsible for memory, attention, planning and prioritising… wow, that for me makes so much sense!  This means I can stop beating myself up for not doing the 50,000 tasks on my to-do list and give myself a break about it.  It explains why I look at the to-do list and can’t work out what I’m meant to do first!

This news also validates the scale I use for my attention span. As I’m a telly addict I describe myself and my attention span in terms of being from Mastermind (I’m NEVER that) to TOWIE (I’m only this after major surgery) and I’d say right now I’m about The Apprentice.  It’s a great scale as it can be used to demonstrate mental health as well as attention, for example: Eastenders (depressed), The Biggest Loser (hopeful) or Miranda (happy).

The study was on ladies who had just one round of chemo and showed effects lasting up to two years, but over time the brain healed itself and chemo brain wasn’t permanent.  I do wonder though what this means for us ladies who have had multiple chemos in spaces of less than two years… I know that in the last month since being on chemo number three (and second in the last two years) I seem to have forgotten big chunks of my life.  Are they gone because frankly right now I don’t have the space for it, because the chemo drug is doing its stuff or are they gone forever?  Who knows, but right now it’s a bit of solace knowing there is science behind why I’m a bit of a shadow of my best self.

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  • king Arthur USA

    chemo and radio is a poison and it has been well documented about chemo brain

  • Tom58

    chemo brain has reduced my quality of life a thousand

  • Linda Gillard

    Thanks for your wonderful blogs. Chemo brain certainly isn’t affecting your writing brain! (Or maybe it just takes much longer to produce a piece?) My last Taxotere (Docetaxel) was in Sept and I’m still reeling from the after-effects, both mental & physical. I’m a writer and after a year off, I’m finding it really hard to remember my real life, let alone my fictional characters’. It’s very, very hard to endure, but I don’t think chemo ever seriously damaged my sense of humour – not for long. It got blacker, at times savage, but even that provided a light in the darkness. As did your TV ratings. Ah, MASTERMIND… One day maybe.

    Stay well.

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