We Need To Talk About Chemo Brain and How It Affects Us After Cancer

"Chemo brain is a common term used by cancer survivors to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment. 'Chemo brain' can also be called 'chemo fog', chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment or cognitive dysfunction." - Mayo Clinic.

Living with the effects of chemo brain after my intensive chemotherapy treatment is one of those things that, for me at least, wasn’t explained truly in-depth before the commencement of my treatment. The idea that chemotherapy, the necessary poison, would change the way my brain operates and processes information was an extremely daunting process that I had to come to terms with post-treatment.

The information that was given to me before treatment commenced was extremely vague in nature. "You may have some cognitive speed and memory recall issues." is a loosely paraphrased quote that I remember from my time sitting in the doctor’s office after being diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) at age 15.

For myself, chemo brain has been one of the biggest hurdles that I have had to overcome, in all aspects of my life post-treatment. In relation to academia, it has been the biggest obstruction to successfully complete my VCE Year 12. Working now in a full-time position in an office, where multitasking and key memory skills are key to the position, I find myself struggling. 2 years on from my last infusion of chemotherapy, my chemo brain symptoms have not gotten any better, and regular appointments with my oncologist confirms that for me, this may be a lifelong cognitive impairment as a result of my treatment.

There needs to be a greater understanding of chemo brain in the wider community, especially outside the familiarity scope of cancer care. Having to explain to people constantly that I may be a little slow at this task, or having to explain over and over to people that you meet that you are essentially damaged from your treatment, makes people treat you differently; for better and for worse. While I haven’t personally come across a bad experience from telling people about my impairment, I know first-hand the embarrassment and shame it brings about. Forgetting a close family member’s name, or forgetting entire situations or conversations is extremely embarrassing and easily misinterpreted by the receiving party as carelessness, being unorganized or just plain rude.

Anyone reading this wondering if there is a quick fix to the effects that chemobrain brings, the short answer is no. The long answer is that you learn to live with the way that your brain now operates, and you accept that you are not the same person that you were before treatment. I am still coming to terms with the way that my brain now operates, and I’m sure that it’ll take me a long time to get used to it.