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#BloodCancerAwarenessMonth Q&A: "Is chemo brain a thing? And where the hell are my car keys?"

Over the years, I've received thousands of emails about Bald in the Land of Big Hair, a memoir about my experience with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A cancer diagnosis brings a firestorm of questions, and as a survivor, I can sympathize, but I'm not an expert; many times I just don't have the answers. So this year during Blood Cancer Awareness Month, I've asked Ashley Rodgers (Masters in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling), to respond to some FAQs about the emotional and psychological aspects of the cancer journey. 

Q: Ever since chemo, I've been struggling with my memory and concentration. It's hard to read a book. I get lost on my way to the grocery store. Sometimes I can't even recite my own phone number! I've heard about "chemo brain" and post-traumatic issues, but my friends tell me it's just stress. What can I do to get my brain back?

Ashley says: The term “chemo brain” refers to mild cognitive impairment; this includes thought processing, concentration, multi-tasking, memory and other mental functions. It is a very real problem that people who have undergone cancer treatment experience. For some it only lasts for a short while, for others it can go on for years. There are several ways to cope with this issue on your own, with the help of your friends and family, and with your doctor(s).

On your own you can focus on healthy habits that support an active brain. Try to maintain a routine of a good night’s sleep, healthy foods including vegetables, and exercise. Your brain is part of your body, so creating a routine full of healthy habits can help give your brain the assistance it needs to combat the mental effects of the cancer treatment.

It can also be helpful to create a regular schedule. When your memory is affected it can be difficult to remember what you wanted to buy at the grocery store, that job interview next week, or the gifts your best friend wanted for his or her birthday this year. Utilize a daily planner, coordinate all your lists, appointments, and contact information all into one place. This is something you can take with you wherever you go and refer back to it whenever you need.

Sometimes chemo brain can make it difficult to multi-task and here is where your friends and family come in. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Your support system is there to support you. If you are trying to do too many things at once, ask someone to help take care of some of the things on your list for you. Take on things one at a time.

Whether these tips help manage the difficulties you are having or not, it is always a good idea to let your doctor(s) know what is happening. They may be able to adjust your treatment or their care relating to these symptoms. Often times, patients will wait to share this with their doctors until it has majorly impacted their day-to-day lives. Help prevent further complications in your everyday by taking action now.

For more information on anything and everything related to “Chemo Brain,” here's an article from the American Cancer Society.

We welcome your questions and comments.

*No part of this blog or the book Bald in the Land of Big Hair should be misconstrued as or substituted for medical advice.

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