Recently I was introduced to the term ‘cancer brain.’ It describes the effects the cancer treatments have on your brain, kinda like the way I used ‘Mommy Brain’. And it aint very fun!
You know when you go to get your eyes checked and the doctor puts various lenses in front of your eyes to see which prescription is best for you? The past several weeks has felt like that to me, but with my brain. There are days that I feel like my brain has wonderful lenses on and I can think with super clarity. But other days I feel like my brain is wearing thick, foggy coke bottles where nothing is clear and I can’t control my thoughts and emotions. And every once in a while, I have a day when my brain is normal.
Being a witness to my own roller coaster of experiences is a little …whacky. It’s like I’m sitting on the outside watching myself react and I have absolutely no control over my experience. It’s a little similar to what I felt with PMS, when I would recognize my heightened moodiness and irritability. But this is more intense and in addition to the moodiness and irritability, there’s also a loss of cognitive function, which makes me feel a little crazy. And I truly want to apologize to those poor people around me who are subjected to all of these ups and downs.
After nine treatments, I’ve learned to recognize the pattern. On Sunday and Monday I take steroids for my treatment. Tuesday, I’m crisp, clear and have super sight! I move at a faster pace than I normally do- I even speak faster. It’s like my mouth and body can’t keep up with what my brain wants me to do. These are my most productive days, for sure! (For a good visual, cue music “Flight of the Bumblebee” and picture me in fast motion going from room to room, multi-tasking!)
By Wednesday afternoon, I begin to feel the fog creep in. My body responds to the past two days of activity by becoming heavy, like lead is running through my veins. My thought processes slow down dramatically and it’s hard to articulate myself clearly.
By Thursday I feel like a limp noodle and moving my body takes a tremendous amount of effort. But putting together complete thoughts and action steps is nearly impossible. I’m just incapable. I will tell myself to go to the next room to do X and remind myself “Sarah, this is why you’re going to the next room. Remember this.” And by the time I get to the next room (all of 10 seconds later) for the life of me, I cannot remember what I was going to do!
Friday and Saturday depression sets in and I begin to feel hopeless. I’m fully cognizant of the fact that my feelings are a response to the medications and they’re an exaggeration of the truth, but this does little to help me move through the experience. I’m sad and lonely, with a lot of irritability thrown in- a wonderful combination for my poor boys who have to experience all of this up close and personal.
By Sunday the fog begins to dissipate and I feel like I’m returning to my normal self a bit. I have clarity, but it’s not laser beam focused. My physical strength has returned and I can follow my thoughts and actions from beginning to completion; just in time for me to start the whole process all over again.
On top of all of that, there are the physical side effects that I’m doing my best to manage.
Yes, in three short weeks, I will complete my last chemo treatment. But the unknown beyond those treatments offer little comfort. Will I find that balance again? Will the fog return?
My thoughts go to those struggling with dementia and I wonder if this is similar to what they experience? To be a first-hand witness to my own cognitive limitations has been tremendously challenging.
I’ve been asked whether or not my spirituality has been helpful during this process. The question kind of stops me dead in my tracks each time. I am a very spiritual person, always looking for the learning opportunities in every experience. But this… this cancer brain and the sporadic loss of cognitive function makes it nearly impossible to focus on anything else. It’s like a big, heavy blanket has been thrown over my brain. And it takes all I have to focus on the details of the day’s activities- you know, things like getting the boys to school and gym, food on the table and bills paid. It just doesn’t even occur to me to seek out the spiritual opportunities. But I’ve continued to pray every night. And I’m reminded of something one of my spiritual teachers always said, written by Master Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, it will be enough.” I say thank you a lot.
And thankfully, I do have a few good days in between. (Otherwise this blog wouldn’t be possible!) And in those moments, I try to accomplish all that I can in preparation for the fog that will inevitably set in and send me back to limited function.
I know this is temporary and I will have plenty of time to process and find the learning opportunities as they’re ready to present themselves, in their own time. And I still experience gratitude for my health, our home, our safety, our abundance, my husband and boys who have been so very, very patient, my family who listens to me day in and day out as I struggle, and my friends who continue to hold me up as I’m tipping over. So yes, I guess I still can access that spirituality and for that I’m grateful too.
Two more treatments. I can do this!
And in case you were wondering, this was written on Sunday, my day of clarity!