I remember my first day of school, perfect spelling for a year in Grade 2 (and still proud of it), many camping trips, my trip to Las Vegas (appendix ruptured), my wedding day, the birth of two children, and deaths of family and friends. These events come quickly and easily to mind because they made such a big impression on me (including the perfect spelling).
On the flip side, remembering those little but important things has become more of a challenge. I’ve been known to say, to anyone within earshot, “I couldn’t hold a thought if it had a handle on it.” I go to a room and then stand there for a few seconds while I try to remember why I’m there. I leave the room and go back in again, hoping I will remember why I went to the room in the first place. Sometimes it works and sometimes I get a full workout (walking in and out of the room many times, especially if they are on different floors) until it comes to me. Sometimes I have to go do something else. Many great things come to me while I’m doing the dishes (yes manually). I have my best ideas there and it can be just the distraction to help me remember why I went into that darn room. If the dishes don’t do it for me, whatever I was going to do in that room couldn’t have been very important.
This memory issue extends to my workplace. When I go into my boss’s office, I bring a notebook and pen, just in case any kind of request is made of me. I need to write down the details, because, in that short distance between my boss’s desk and mine, I will inevitably forget what she’s asked me to do, or at least some of the details. Sometimes I don’t get everything written down in her office when details are coming fast and furious. When I go back to my desk, I look at what I loosely call notes and try to figure out what I meant by them. If I’m lucky, the details come to me and I don’t have to go back to my boss to ask what she wanted me to do. On the bright side, at least for me, I see that she has to scribble notes, so it’s not just me. I do suspect, however, that she actually knows what her notes mean.
I ask myself when this started to happen, but of course I can’t remember. Instead, I have to rely on my business analyst skills to dig deep and put on my ‘what-if’ hat.
What if it’s the after effects of chemo?
I’m hoping that not everyone reading this blog has had the chemo experience but, if you have, you’ll know the term chemo brain, which covers everything from foggy thinking to trouble concentrating to memory loss. When I had chemo, my brain actually functioned fairly well (except when my epilepsy went a little wonky). I was lucky. I went to work on most days after each treatment and continued to be just as effective as I was before I had chemo. And yes, I was effective before I had chemo. I didn’t have trouble remembering things, but I had a friend who underwent chemo and had her walls covered with sticky notes. It was the only way she could be sure that she ‘remembered’ to do things. This messy but effective technique gives a whole other meaning to the word wallpaper.
What if it’s a hormonal change?
All women have changes in hormone levels at some points in their lives. The biggest times are during a pregnancy, after having a baby, and during menopause. Depending on which way the hormones are swinging, it can mean tears, moodiness, and what some men might call psychotic behaviour. When challenged about it (tears, moodiness, psychotic episodes), we may say there’s nothing unusual about it. You may be in denial or you may just be experiencing memory loss.
From a cancer perspective, chemo can put women into menopause, which would mean a sudden hormonal change and potential memory problems. Too bad chemo doesn’t wipe out the memory of the cancer experience.
What if there’s only so much room?
Sometimes, ‘not enough room’ is my excuse for not being able to remember things. Being over 50 (almost closer to 60 soon), I have a fairly large volume of high-impact memories stored in my head. This means there is less room in my brain to remember the little things than there was when I was a lot younger. It only makes sense. Sometimes I consider wearing earplugs so that, with all the crowding in my head, those little thoughts, just barely clinging to the inside of my brain, don’t fall back out. I guess those earplugs could be called memory sticks.
What if I’m a little cracked?
Although people may have been saying that for years about me, the evidence is just now becoming more apparent. To get information from one place to another in a brain, the impulse that transmits that information has to jump over a gap (synapse) to get from one brain (nerve) cell to another. Like global warming, I’m beginning to think those gaps have turned into full crevices in my head. Some of my thoughts must be falling into the abyss, because they don’t always reach their destination.
It’s also possible that my neurotransmitters (the spark that gets my thoughts across the great divide) are old and cracked. Maybe they just aren’t as full of life as they used to be.
What if it’s stress?
Oh my goodness, what if it IS stress?
There are many events that can trigger stress. It could be a series of challenges in your life. It could be just too much going on at any given time. It could be because you think you are losing your mind because you spend a lot of your day going in and out of rooms trying to remember why you are there. Did I talk about that already?
Stress can affect your sleep (too little or interrupted), which affects how well your brain works. Some deep breathing will help you relax and will get more oxygen to your brain. A win-win situation.
What if I don’t know the answers?
I don’t know for sure what has caused the decrease in my ability to remember things. It’s not like I experience it all the time. Some things I remember well and others fall by the wayside. I think I subconsciously assign a number from one to 10 to each of my memories. The lower numbers drop off and the memories with the higher numbers stay until something more important or traumatic comes along. There are also those experiences (my 10s) that are so important that a memory with a higher number will never replace it.
At this point I can laugh about my memory loss. It happens from time to time. I consider it relatively normal. The items I forget do not cause serious problems. If they do happen, I use my selective memory to erase them from my memory.
What if it’s the beginning of something else?
On a more serious note, sometimes I wonder if there is something more serious going on. It crosses my mind and then I push the thought away. It’s like jumping to the conclusion that if there’s a lump, there’s cancer. It’s something to watch, but I suspect that if it becomes a problem, the people around me will notice before I do. I can’t fear the unknown. I won’t let myself worry about something that may never come. At least for now, I consider myself lucky.
Others are not so lucky. I recently met someone with Alzheimer’s, so this disease has become much more real to me. I can see the impact on the person with it and the impact on the caregiver. Like cancer, it’s a family disease. It’s created a new normal that’s far from normal. This new appreciation for the frustrations associated with this disease is part of the reason why I will be sponsoring my friend and her husband, who are participating in the Alzheimer’s walk in Toronto. They want to make a difference, and so do I.
Over 30-years of writing experience, over five years as a cancer survivor, and a lifetime purveyor of wit and laughter.