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Chemo Brain

During the war on drugs decade, there appeared a rather clever commercial that showed a man holding up an egg.

“This is your brain,” he’d say, solemnly.

He would then crack the egg and drop it into a hot frying pan. As it sizzled in response, he would add, “This is your brain on drugs.”

Looking into the lens of the camera, he would conclude. “Any questions?”

Oh, how we loved those few seconds of television, using the slogan to poke fun at each other during temporary lapses in judgment. It became the anthem for every stupid answer, every inappropriate comment. Such is the stuff that pop culture legends are made of, right?

Well, I have been on some mighty powerful cancer treatment drugs, and I can readily confirm that the phenomenon known as chemo brain is real. And unsettling.

For a writer, the inability to retrieve language is not only an occupational hazard, but a real handicap. I often stare at a blank computer screen grappling for the right word to use. Eventually, I can retrieve it, but not without some interesting exercise on my part. This can include singing silly songs, eating chips, and staring out the window of my closet. Sometimes, I am willing to try anything to get my mind working again. I have not yet mastered the headstand, although I find that taking a shower often helps. Too bad I don’t have enough hair to condition. I would have amazingly soft locks. Editing is a nightmare since I read things as I intend them to be rather than as they appear. I often spend hours proofreading a one-page blog post in an effort to keep from embarrassing myself in cyberspace. Even a Facebook post can turn comical. I don’t dare think about starting a new novel. Not yet, anyway.

In conversation, it is even worse. I routinely forget people’s names. My family tries not to giggle when I refer to common objects as something completely different. And that’s on a good day. At other times, I have no clue what some things are called and have to resort to wild gesturing. I often look like I am engaged in an elaborate form of charades, rather than small talk. I’m part French, so I can get by with it.

My short term memory seems to be a particular challenge. I often enter a room with some specific purpose in mind only to forget why I am there once I arrive. I will pace around until it comes to me, but more often than not, I get distracted by something else until hours later when I suddenly remember my original mission. Multitasking, which I used to excel in, is currently out of the question.

Ironically, I seem to recall the details of things that happened decades ago, memoires that I had forgotten that I had even forgotten. (And yes, I meant to write that.) It is interesting to think back on childhood experiences with great fondness. I guess it is true that the mind compensates in one area when another is compromised.

I’m not sure how long the residual effects will be with me. I have heard that it can be as long as a year. Fingers crossed that I am not back in treatment before then, which would certainly compound the problem. I am afraid that this disease has made me impatient. But then, I remind myself how fortunate I am, and I get a bit of an attitude adjustment. I am able to think quite clearly in that regard.

When a person breaks a leg or has hip replacement, he or she is immediately sent to physical therapy to regain the skills lost by the injury. Writing this has been mine, a weekly exercise for my addled brain. Interestingly, in the process, I have uncovered some deep thoughts, some wise ideas I didn’t even know I had. There is always some blessing to be discovered in spite of the challenge. I guess that is what rehabilitation is supposed to do, right?

And if you meet me in the grocery store, don’t be surprised if I refer to the tomatoes on sale as melons. I will laugh it off and say, “chemo brain.” And I hope that you will laugh, too

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