The advantages of chemo brain fog

Prior to chemotherapy, I had ideas and thoughts like a full cast of characters chattering in my head. Suddenly, I might as well have been acting in a play where I was the only cast member without a script. I tried to follow conversations – people saying blah, blah, blah. Me grappling with how to respond – confusion and silence – duh nothing going on in my mind.

Chemo took the useful parts of my brain

I couldn’t listen to the radio and spent days in complete silence. Sound was intolerable for the overstimulation of words coming through air. I skimmed newspapers in under five minutes. Although reading has been a great pleasure all my life, since the diagnosis I couldn’t focus enough to read a book (sob), or concentrate, or complete sentences to write. Months passed as I gazed, cat like, into middle space, staring at nothing except the days passing by.

One evening, Decker tried to talk to me and I cried in frustration. Was he asking me to think? He said, “I don’t know what the hell is going on with you,” Neither did I.

Some kind people said they didn’t notice I was different. Hmm, does that mean I didn’t ever make sense ? It seems even those close to me couldn’t see my struggle to function at what felt to me like a fraction of myself. Apparently, the difference between my cognitive capacity pre and post diagnosis is, ironically, obvious mostly in my own mind. Wow; what an opportunity to reinvent me while no one notices. There’s a  project for my ‘to-do’ list: create secret identity, or morph into different person.

And then, the fog began to lift

One day, I formed a coherent sentence. Decker and I conversed over dinner. I couldn’t wait to tell friends (some of them sweetly pretended to care) that I dreamt again; a real dream, in colour, with dialogue and action.

I’m reading. I reread Rebecca Saxe of M.I.T. Saxe Lab on the difference between the brain and the mind. If you haven’t read anything Professor Saxe has written, or seen her on TED talks or MIT Ideas Lab, well, there’s pleasure you still have in store.Andria, my lovely big sister who flew across the country to be with me for the first mastectomy, has morphed into my book pusher. Books kept arriving in the mail!! Thanks dear sister.

I’m writing. Is this any good? Can’t say. Is anyone but me reading it? Don’t care. Its value is the exercise of writing. I’m writing!!

Next, I tried complex tasks and doing more than one thing in a day. Yes!! I’m ramped up for a return to paid work.

When I couldn’t get to sleep one night this week, I was mystified. I fall asleep instantly. It took a while to figure out. What a shock: the flip side of not having thoughts for two years – nothing worried or stressed me enough to keep me awake. I couldn’t hold a worried thought with brain fog. Eyes closed, I slept. No dreams, no cares, no ideas to write down in the dark so I wouldn’t forget them.

What a bummer. For two years I complained about brain fog while sleeping peacefully through the night. The brain fog lifts, and I rejoin the masses whose sleep is disrupted with thoughts they can’t silence.  I guess the joke’s on me.

When my mind had nothing happening in it, meditation was easy to practice

I didn’t appreciate that I was enjoying a chemically induced quiet mind. Instead, I framed it as not thinking and whined about it. Now my thinking is clearing I have a baseline of what a quiet mind feels like. It’s sure different than the usual mental chatter. Mental stillness brought on by a meditative state (rather than toxins) has become my new goal. I’d recognize because I’ve experienced it artificially. Thank you chemotherapy for the gift of having known a quiet mind.

I guess that’s the difference between knowing what to do and experiencing doing it. When I teach conflict competence’s common sense skills, I emphasize that people have the skills and use them daily – until threat, diress and stress make the skills inaccessible. Conflict tends to drive our skills away because our thinking is reduced with high emotion, defensiveness, and surprise. Part of conflict competence training is recognizing the skills we all possess in calm times, and being able to access and use them in conflict.

Sleep well friends, dreamless

Like my conflict studies students, I’m practicing skills in calm times, so that I can access that desired state at will.


  1. I have just read through all your posts: this should a Primer for doctors, patients, friends and everyone else on how to keep living after a cancer diagnosis. Warm, intelligent, compassionate, frustrated, funny — just like the person I know.


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