Thursday, November 5, 2009

Can't Find Your Words? Say: "Chemo Brain!"

By Idelle Davidson

You know it's just on the tip of your tongue.  It's a word that has a "ka" sound in the beginning and a "tah" sound somewhere at the end.  And you can almost see it, but then darn, it's gone.  Perhaps later, when you're rushing to slap dinner on the table, that stupid word, so maddeningly elusive just hours before will pop right into your head, as if it were all just a silly misunderstanding between you and your brain.

I'm guessing that if you've had chemo and have experienced the fog that often follows, then you know what I'm talking about, right?  It's not that you can't comprehend language, it's that you can't retrieve it.  It's like the arcade game with the crane where you try to scoop up the two-penny plastic key chain and then five-dollars-worth-of-quarters later, it's stuck in the chute.

In a 2006 study of the psychosocial side effects experienced by 26 women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, language (including fluency, verbal repetition, reading, and writing to dictation) was the most severely affected cognitive process, followed by memory. (Source: F. Downie, Psycho-Oncology 15 -2006: 921-930).  That's not entirely surprising considering that chemotherapy not only may affect language but the speed in which we process information.

One of the people I interviewed for "Your Brain After Chemo" had this to say: "It is painful when people look at me with confusion while I am trying to talk.  I know that I'm not making sense, and I don't know how else to talk.  When it happens I die a million deaths and feel very dumb."    

Have you experienced word retrieval problems during or following chemotherapy?  Have you found ways to compensate?  If so, what works for you?


  1. I found a clinical trial regarding which shows that it is damage done to to lining of the nerve. When this damage is in your hands or feet, it is call peripheral neuroapthy. When its in your brain cells, its called chemo-brain.

    I have friend who had a lot of nerve damage from chemotherapy and she found some special b vitamins that have helped her tremendously.
    I also found a page with this that has more information and has the clinical trial which I'm talking about. See

  2. I have word retrieval problems frequently. Though it is getting a little better. Sometimes it's the same word, so when I know I might be in a situation to use that word I'll think of it in advance and repeat it in my head to be ready to use it.

    It feels like missing puzzle pieces. Sometimes I find the piece, but sometimes I don't. When I don't I have to squirm around it. I'll go blank. Then I'll over describe something. It can be embarrassing. Even when people know I've had chemo, they don't seem to understand that this is a real issue. I try to explain, but people don't seem to get it.

    I also have trouble writing and typing. I'll totally skip a word or a letter without even knowing it. So now I re-read everything two or three times before I "complete" it.

    These are just a few of the issues I've had. It hasn't been easy.

  3. Beach,

    Rehearsing words is a really good strategy because it helps you feel more in control which in turn lifts some of the stress that might be contributing to your going blank in the first place.

    I had trouble typing as well and I still find that I leave out letters or words every once in a while, especially when I'm tired.

    I know it's not easy. But just remember that everyone has their "stuff." Don't beat yourself up. If things take a little longer, then they do, but eventually they'll get done.

    -- Idelle

  4. Boy, can I relate to that tip-of-the-tongue retrieval issue. Just the other day, I was trying to think of Branzino (a Mediterranean fish).

    "Um, it begins with a b and has three syllables."

    I did manage to retrieve the fish before the night was over.

  5. Thank you. Thank you.
    I have tentatively asked doctors about this "condition" for the past 12 years since chemo. All discounted it. I just stumbled across your book and feel hope, vindication, perhaps optimism?? I've been a professional marketer, writer, communicator for 27 years but feel that I've been faking my way through for the past 12. Writing is not as difficult for me as verbal communication, but I often have to reorganize sentences and paragraphs. My sequencing is problematic.
    I have a trick when I want to make a forceful point in conversation. I think of it as my running start. I throw myself in, try not to concentrate too hard and hope that my momentum will help the right words surface and flow through. It seems that old "muscle memory" gets me through --- sometimes. But rehearsal and memorization gets me through any public speaking requirement.
    Can't wait to get the book.

  6. Carolyn, so you have no trouble with memorization? I'm going to try your "running start" trick. Thank you!

  7. Same issues as all above say , some peripheral too , if someone blinds sides me and argues or challenges me , my words come out wrong , the more they attack , the worse i feel , and it is not till i have had good time to think , i can find the words i want, i have found family members controlling me this way , as they see the weakness , it has made me pull back , and keep out of their way . Even if i try to explain better later , it just starts them off again , best say nothing about anything , they lose their power over one then , not nice way to live really , it's a type of bullying.