The advantages of chemo brain fog

Prior to the cancer treatment, I walked around with ideas and thoughts like a full cast of characters chattering away in my head. Suddenly, I might as well have been in opening night of a play with a full house and I was the only cast member without a script. Here I am trying to follow a conversation – people were saying blah, blah, blah. Me figuring out what to say in response – confusion and silence – duh nothing going on in my mind.

All these months I’ve been whining about chemo related loss of the useful working part of my brain. As Decker said one evening: “I don’t know what the hell is going on with you,” when he tried to talk to me about some radio news item and I cried in frustration that he was asking me to think. I didn’t know what was going on either.

Some nice people kindly said they didn’t notice I wasn’t engaging in conversations. Hmm, does that mean I didn’t make sense even pre-diagnosis ? It seems even those close to me couldn’t see the struggle I had to function at what felt to me like a fraction of the real me. Apparently, the difference between my cognitive capacity pre and post diagnosis is, ironically, obvious mostly in my own mind. Wow; what an opportunity to reinvent me while no one notices. Stay tuned, as a  project on my ‘to-do’ list: create secret identity, or morph into different person, or gain super power.

There were some tangible losses. I couldn’t listen to the radio and spent days in complete silence. The soundwaves were intolerable for the overstimulation of thinking about the words coming through the air. I skimmed newspapers in under five minutes. Although reading has been a great pleasure all my life, since the diagnosis I couldn’t focus enough to read a book (sob), or concentrate on completing sentences to write anything worth reading (sigh). Months passed as I gazed, cat like, into middle space, staring at nothing and the days went by.

And then, the fog began to lift. I could form a coherent sentence. Decker and I conversed over dinner again. What a joy when I had my first dream. I couldn’t wait to tell friends (some of them were sweet to care) that I dreamt at night. What I dreamed wasn’t the issue – I had a real dream, in colour, with dialogue and action. I was thrilled.

Andria, my lovely big sister who flew across the country to be with me for the first mastectomy, has morphed from my support to my book pusher. She loaned me three novels she’d enjoyed and found easy reading: The Language of Flowers, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and Secret Daughter. I was reading again and Andria keeps the books coming!! Thanks dear sister. Such simple delights. and I tried writing. Is this any good for the reader? Can’t say. Don’t know if anyone but me will read it and don’t really care. Its value to me is in the exercise of writing. I’m writing!! My brain is engaged. I reread Rebecca Saxe of M.I.T. Saxe Lab on the difference between the brain and the mind. If you haven’t read anything Professor Saxe has written, or seen her on TED talks or MIT Ideas Lab, well, there’s pleasure you still have in store.

Next, I tried complex tasks and doing more than one thing in a day. Yes!! Success there too. I was ramping up for a return to paid work. It was all good.

When I couldn’t get to sleep one night this week, I was mystified. I fall asleep instantly. It took me a while to figure out what had changed. What a shock: the flip side of not having any serious thoughts for two years – nothing worried or stressed me enough to keep me awake at night. I couldn’t hold a worried thought through the brain fog. Eyes closed, I slept. No dreams, no cares, no ideas to write down in the dark so I wouldn’t forget them.

What a bummer. For two years I complained about brain fog and slept peacefully through the night. The brain fog is lifting and I’ve rejoined the masses of those whose sleep is disrupted with thoughts they can’t silence.  I guess the joke’s on me.

When my mind had nothing happening in it, meditation was easy to practice: I didn’t appreciate that I was enjoying a chemically induced quiet mind. Instead, I framed it as not thinking and whined about it. Now that my thinking is clearing I have a baseline of what a quiet mind feels like. It’s sure different than the usual mental chatter that’s coming back. Mental stillness brought on by a meditative state (rather than toxins) has become a new goal for me. It’s a target I’d recognize because I experienced it artificially. Thank you cancer treatment, for the gift of having known a quiet mind that I might be able to achieve again with continued meditation practice.

I guess that’s the difference between knowing what to do and experiencing the doing of it. When I teach conflict competence’s common sense skills, I emphasize that people have the skills and use them daily – until threat, diress and stress make the skills inaccessible. Part of conflict competence training is accessing the skills that we all possess in calm times,  and being able and ready to use them as conflict arises. Conflict tends to drive our skills away because our thinking is reduced with high emotion, defensiveness, and surprise. Like my conflict studies students, I’m practicing skills in calm times, so that I can access that desired state during times of stress. Sleep well friends.


true story, rebecca saxe, andria spindel, conflict management, double mastectomy, breast cancer, triple negative, conflict competent, chemo fog, chemo brain, brain fog, writing, health