Monday, November 8, 2010

Hodgkin's Lymphoma Survivor Says He is Wealthy Because of 'Chemo Brain' -- Think Pinball Wizard

By Patrick Harvill
Southern California
Guest Blogger
Hi Idelle,

I'm 9 1/2 years out from treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma and I have chemo brain in spades.  My symptoms are mostly the usual -- short-term memory deficits, attention deficits meaning forgetting what I am talking about or doing, and the whole intending to do the action but it doesn't happen.  I have near-amnesia under stress.  Related chemo maladies are chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. I can't recall them all. Those are the main ones that bedevil me.
When I first talked to an oncologist about it in late 2005, he suggested that I must have been fried before chemo.  I'm a Phi Beta Kappa.  I'm a Columbia Law School graduate, where I was managing editor of the law review and had the designation Harlan Fiske Stone scholar for all three years of school.  When my health collapsed, I left an extremely demanding law firm - think "The Firm" by John Grisham - and got a job as a DA.  I continue to work as a DA, but am "reasonably accommodated" under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by my employer.  I was told by a neuropsychologist that doing legal trials may make me decline further. So I do other duties and hearings but not trials. I am dazed a lot, especially in the afternoon. Colleagues and management seem to understand my limitations.

A strange side effect of the chemo brain is that my investing aptitude has massively increased, and so has my wealth, since I suffered the damage.  I have always been into investing since I was a teen, but had little money and was confused by all the investment chatter.  My investing style involves little activity. It focuses on a few things, mainly a low price compared to value. I am a follower of Warren Buffett and use a long-term approach with few moves. Strangely, where before I was confused by chatter and talking heads, after chemo I perceived what was cheap clearly. 

To people not familiar with Buffett-style value investing, what I say may seem counterintuitive. Detachment from the crowd helps. Detachment from fear and greed helps. Detachment from chatter helps.  I was like the Pinball Wizard in the old song - no distractions, but just a few things I could understand surrounded by chemo fog. Also since money can do nothing for me to restore me, I am more free of fear and greed than I used to be.

The key is to understand the bad recall and bad attention and stay within what I can do.

Still, I need to keep my job and the research into chemo brain keeps suspicious employers from attacking chemo brain victims as malingerers.  Chemo brain does not impact intelligence. It impacts recall, attention, word finding and results in chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, but it does not impact intelligence. Even in 2005, the evidence was clear of the impact of chemo, and fortunately since then it's gotten much more developed.  

So I'm a lucky one who remains employed.  Anyone who raises the understanding about this life-altering condition of chemo brain is helping untold numbers of people to survive survival.  To raise awareness, I am more than happy to share my story and do anything that I can do.  

Other details: I'm 45 years old.  I was on ABVD for six cycles - Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine, Dacarbazine.


  1. Patrick, this is an extraordinary story. Thank you for sharing it. Some people might argue that you don't have chemo brain if you're able to focus on specific tasks, as you are with your finances. It almost sounds like you're claiming that chemotherapy has disabled you in some areas but almost given you a super power in another. Is that what you're saying?

  2. If you read up on the syndrome you see that yes some areas suffer like short term memory and word find while others do not. I have been in remission 17 years after a year of ABVD. And my short term memory is still horrible , though things like patterning ( logic equations and programming) come easy to me , short term memorization is a huge difficulty. For example trying to learn French , I cannot sit and look at a list of words and memorize them..... I learn very differently now. It started after chemo and just never got any better . So I need to pit things in their own place or will misplace them, I need to use other strategies than memorization for learning new subjects, and learning takes me longer than others who can just sit and memorize lists.

    It can be very frustrating as it is no reflection on your intellectuality , and yes other areas, much like the author above, remain untouched- I can research , pattern, program, and debate with the vest of them- but give me ten new words in annother language to memorize and they just won't stick, let me lay my keys down for 5 secs in another area of my house and they are lost, lead me to a store without a list and I'll have no clue what I meant to pick up.


    I was assessed through testing and my results were very high capacity in auditory learning or linkage of patterning if already familiar but complete fail on short term memory tests.

    After this amount of time I just don't think it's going to get any better but you learn to live with and work around it.

  3. Thank you for your note. You said that "you learn to live with and work around it." Would you mind providing some examples of what you mean? I'm assuming you've developed some strategies that work for you. If so, would you mind sharing?