Tuesday, August 31, 2010

INFORMATION PROCESSING: How Chemotherapy Changes the Way You Think, Part 3

Idelle Davidson

In the introduction of Your Brain After Chemo, I tell the story of one of my friends, "Linda," who was in a support group with me at the Wellness Community.  Earlier in the week she had tried to get to the market only to find herself tangled in frustration.

First she forgot her purse and had to drive home to get it.  She left a second time, only to realize she had forgotten her grocery list.  Again she returned home.  This went on six times, each time she needed something else.  Finally, ready to throw herself under the nearest bus, she carefully took inventory.  Yes, she had her purse.  Yes, she had her list.  Yes, she had her driving glasses.  Yes, she had enough checks and change for the meter.  And yes, she had the directions she needed for an errand she would run after shopping.

Finally, she got to her car.  She opened her purse, felt for her keys and realized she had left them in the house and she was locked out!

So cognitively speaking, what was going on here? Problems with multitasking and organization were pretty evident (see part 2 in this series about executive functioning).  But according to one neuropsychologist I interviewed, the real culprit may also be her brain's slower processing speed, one of the most common deficits of all among people who have been through chemotherapy.

Everything takes longer.  That's because your brain is like this huge cabinet stuffed with files and they're all out of order, said the expert.  Eventually your brain will sift through and find what it needs, but not without tremendous effort. 

Has this happened to you?  What was your experience like?

Stay tuned for part 4: problems with WORD RETRIEVAL


  1. This story reminded me of experiences I have had shortly after I finished my 4 months of ACT chemo for breast cancer, and still happens, thankfully with less frequency.

    After having done multiple errands in more than one store, I approached my car, and as I unlocked the hatch saw the bags from the first store. I stared at the bags and COULD NOT remember what I had purchased just 30 minutes ago! The first time this happened, I flung open the door and ripped open the bags in disbelief that I couldn't remember something so simple. After the second and third time this terrifying experience happened, I made a test of it: I would NOT open car and the bags until I made myself recall exactly what I had just previously purchased. Once, I stood there while the ice cream melted, the milk got warm, and people began to stare, but refused to give in to this short-term memory lapse.

    Chemo definitely altered the way my brain processes information. It is getting better 5 years out, but it is still challenging!

  2. Hi, i'm a physician and i've met quite a number of patients that had mental fog or chemo brain as we call it. Actually the industry likes to avoid mentioning its cause however i suspect that certain brain cells get killed due to the chemo and hence cognitive thinking together with memory are severely affected.
    My advice is for these patients is to stay always active and engage in brain games, solve puzzles, do some sports. Add omega 3 fats to your diet especially the krill oil... this is not bullet proof solution but it will help you.

  3. This is good advice. Thank you for contributing.