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Overcoming “Chemo-brain”

Overcoming “Chemo-brain”

Lee Prokaska enjoyed a long career as a reporter, editor and editorial writer for The Hamilton Spectator, where job requirements included having a sharp mind and a way with words. But during chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer, words began to escape her – literally.

“While it’s normal for people to occasionally struggle for words, especially as they age, what I faced during and after chemo was much more severe,” said Prokaska, 64, who was experiencing brain fog, also known as chemo brain

“With brain fog, you stumble for your best friend’s name. You can’t remember your mother’s phone number even though you’ve dialed it for 45 years.”

Prokaska’s ability to multi-task was also impacted. “I’d get confused about what I was doing. My initial reaction was that the chemo was killing my brain, but my medical team assured me that wasn’t the case.”

Up to 70 per cent of chemotherapy patients experience symptoms of brain fog including decreased memory, shorter attention span and reduced ability to stay organized and multi-task, said Dr. Karen Zhang, a clinical, health and rehabilitation psychologist at the JHCC.

“Cognitive testing tends to show that individuals experiencing chemo brain are functioning in a range that indicates no cognitive impairment,” said Zhang. “While they aren’t near the point of dementia or other acquired brain injuries, they’re still experiencing symptoms that they find alarming.”

Brain fog typically improves with time, though it can last up to two years or more after cancer treatment. Risk factors for longer-lasting symptoms include depression and anxiety, said Zhang.

Prokaska returned to work 10 months after finishing cancer treatment that included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. “My job involved words, which I sometimes had trouble finding,” said Prokaska, who also couldn’t remember how to use her work’s computer programs when she first returned. “It was like I had never sat in front of a computer before.”

But she persevered, and discovered new strategies for staying organized such as writing reminders on her desk calendar and using sticky notes to track tasks. “I hid it well. After a couple of weeks, no one would have guessed I was struggling and after six months I was back to feeling confident, though I did continue to use paper reminders.”

Prokaska retired from The Spectator five years ago, finishing strong. Her last position was a senior one that included writing editorials and editing guest op-ed pieces and letters-to-the-editor. She now volunteers writing the monthly newsletter for BRIGHT Run, a fundraiser for local breast cancer research that’s taking place Sept. 12.

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