Person stepping out of a foggy silhouette head and shoulders, into the clear sunshine. They are maintaining an esteemed, powerful stance.

Beating Brain Fog

You may have heard of “chemo brain,” but cancer-related brain fog is not limited to those who have experienced chemotherapy. So, what do we mean when we cancer patients say we have chemo brain or that our minds are foggy? Well, it can manifest in many ways. The most common things I’ve experienced and heard from fellow patients is forgetfulness, stumbling over words, mild confusion, and a general feeling of being in a daze (hence the foggy reference!).

What causes brain fog besides chemo?

From speaking with my medical team, we know there are definitely medical findings to say that chemotherapy can cause this, but what about those who haven’t had chemo? I asked my oncologist, and she said that prolonged exposure to anesthesia, high doses of antibiotics, and pain medication can definitely increase the likelihood of a foggy brain. Well, that makes sense for me! 9 procedures requiring some form of anesthesia or sedation, 2 months of round-the-clock vancomycin, and a solid 3 months of almost daily opioid pain medication probably got my wiring a little crossed.

The frustration of experiencing brain fog at work

I didn’t really notice my brain fog until I returned to work full time. I found that I would forget where I was in a project, I would stumble over my words or say them out of order, and more importantly, I could have a conversation with someone and forget half of it almost immediately. It was so frustrating to experience. Thankfully, I'm 8 months back in the swing of things, and I’ve gotten much better. I still have some forgetful moments and mixing up words happens here and there, but it's not as bad as it was.

Tips for battling brain fog

I did find some tips and tricks along the way that I feel helped me break through the fog and overcome what has decided to linger.

Take notes

At work, I make a point to take notes during phone calls and meetings. When my boss gives me a task or asks a question, I write it down immediately. This helps me remember what I’m being told and stay on task. Even at home, I have a pad on my fridge where I can write down to do’s, grocery needs, or appointment reminders.

Repeat back what you hear

A habit I developed back as a student was repeating back what someone told me. To an outsider, it comes across as a sign of respect, that I was listening and am now confirming a directive. Nowadays, it is a way for me to ensure I have heard correctly and understand what I am being told. Processing a directive and repeating it back seems to help my brain hold onto the information longer.

Play brain games

My tablet is loaded with silly brain games like word search, scrabble, and various puzzles that get me thinking. Sometimes, you need to pretend like you’re back in grade school and make your brain get to work!

Read out loud or sing along

My biggest struggle has been stumbling over my words when I speak or getting words in the wrong order. It sometimes felt like my brain is moving faster than my mouth can keep up. It is embarrassing at times and has earned me a few weird looks. I started with small things like reading my own writing out loud, reading news articles out loud, or even passages in my latest book aloud. It has helped to see sentence structure and say it at the same time. I’ve also found singing along with my music in the car works just as well. It helps me with my memory by remembering words to my favorite songs, and singing helps me untie my scrambled speech.

Be patient with yourself

My greatest recommendation for those fighting brain fog is just to communicate and be patient with yourself. When I noticed that I was having forgetfulness and some speech troubles I made sure to just communicate to those around me that I needed a little help. My boss knows that I may need something explained again for clarity, and I make sure to ask follow-up questions to ensure I’m on track. When I stumble while speaking, I stop, take a breath, and start over rather than getting embarrassed. My husband gives me space to start sentences over or helps me when I get stuck on a word I can’t remember. I’ve had to learn to be patient with myself. Just as my body needed time to heal from surgery, my mind now needs a chance to heal as well. It's going to take time and practice to work through my brain fog. I understand that some medications and procedures I’ve had may have left some lasting effects.

Communicate with your medical team, too

If you are experiencing good old chemo brain or some general fogginess from cancer treatment, know you are not alone. Talk to your medical team, they may have some great tips to help you work through it. Next time you walk into a room and can’t remember why or mix up a few words, just chuck it up to one more weird cancer quirk we have to deal with.

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