During my fourth month of chemotherapy, I asked my daughter, “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a cow, right?” She smiled at me and said “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair.” I knew that Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair, but I had no idea why I knew that. I was also almost certain that Fuzzy Wuzzy was either a cow or a worm. Odd choices, but they seemed right to me at the time. While Fuzzy Wuzzy’s species may not seem like a crucial piece of information to have on hand, the nursery rhyme was just one of the many things that I’d known all my life and could no longer remember.  

Before chemotherapy, I’d stumble over common words once in a while. For example, I’d ask my daughter to “put the plates on the thingy.” For some reason, “table” had been a blank spot in my vocabulary since I was pregnant with her more than a decade before my diagnosis. I chalked it up to a long-lasting case of mommy brain. I was often discouraged by these lapses in word recall, but they were nothing compared to chemo brain.

Chemo brain is like mommy brain on steroids. Not only did I forget common words with increasing frequency, but the threads of my sentences would unravel as quickly as they’d formed, leaving me at a complete loss as to what I was talking about. I may not have been a sparkling conversationalist before chemo, but since then, my conversation skills have taken quite a hit.

My friends and family were supportive when I’d lose my way in a conversation, but it wasn’t only the little things I’d struggle to remember. During my summer of chemo, I’d forget important events in my friends’ lives. In some cases, I’d remember having a conversation about an event, but I couldn’t recall what was said. In other situations, I had no recollection of having the conversation at all. I felt awful! How could my loved ones know that I was listening, and that I cared about their lives, if I couldn’t remember conversations we’d shared? 

My friend and physician, Vivian, explained to me that those memories were still there, I just couldn’t access them at the moment. It was beyond frustrating, but she was right. No matter how hard I tried to remember the lost conversations, I failed. Then, weeks later, every detail would come rushing back to me with perfect clarity. I was grateful to retrieve the memories, but I couldn’t help wondering what else I was missing.

As if forgetting entire conversations wasn’t bad enough, I became horrible with names. Most people don’t expect you to remember the names of people you’ve only met once. But when you’ve known someone for ten years, it’s a little embarrassing to draw a complete blank on their name. In these situations, I’d spend several minutes silently searching for their name, often unsuccessfully, all the while losing focus on the conversation at hand.

My memory may have improved slightly since the end of cancer treatments, but I’m nowhere near as sharp as I was before my diagnosis. More than two years since my last chemo infusion, I still lose words, names, and my train of thought frequently. I can no longer eloquently state and defend my position in a friendly debate because my supporting facts seem to evaporate. 

I was told that it could take a couple of years to regain full cognitive function after chemo, but at this point, I’m not sure that’s in the cards for me. In fact, I sometimes feel like I’ve lost more function post-chemo than I’ve gained. It’s shaken my confidence, and at times made me feel like a shadow of my former self. 

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had to adjust my expectations during social situations. Rather than getting frustrated or embarrassed when my memory fails me, I’ve learned to laugh about it. I’ve found that the more pressure I put on myself to remember words, names, and streams of consciousness, the more frustrated I become, thereby making it even harder to recall any useful information. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that I can happily live without.

While some people don’t have many lasting effects from chemotherapy, others struggle with cognitive issues for years afterward. It seems as though I may be in the latter group. And although it may be vexing at times, it’s taught me to lighten up and not take myself so seriously. I guess that’s just another lesson I’ve learned from my cancer experience.

Melanie Kallas Ricklefs is a mom, wife, daughter, sister, and friend. She is also a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer in April 2016. She underwent chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and radiation to find her way back to health. Melanie has always enjoyed working and playing outdoors. You can find her and her family hiking, biking, kayaking, backpacking, and camping throughout the Pacific Northwest. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Forest Biology from the University of Vermont, and a Master of Science in Forest Pathology from Colorado State University.  To read more of Melanie’s articles related to cancer, click here.

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