What, you missed it? Last Monday was National Bring Your Chemo Brain to Work Day, when you leave your functioning brain at home while wading through a veil of mental fog in the workplace.
I know what you’re thinking. When you have chemo brain, every day is a holiday. It disgusts you the way they’ve commercialized everything, but I assure you this is not one of those holidays they have cards for. Come to think of it, though, it would make a great coffee mug.
All jokes aside, your cognitive abilities can be humming along just fine and then, BAM! A blackout. A system crash. The information is still there, but you temporarily can’t access it. The fog creates a veil of confusion that renders you blind and dumb. Unlike real fog, no one else around you is affected by it and they can’t understand your lack of clarity.
One cancer website suggests writing everything down so you don’t forget. Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that? I probably did but can’t remember. I do remember shortly after completing treatment being in the middle of . . . whatever . . . when I got one of those glistening gems that writers often get . . . well, I thought it was good and the dog seemed to like it. Wait, the dog … where’s the dog?! Oh, right, I don’t have one. Now where was I? Oh, yeah. So as not to lose that nugget of genius, I’d simply memorialize it on paper. Easy enough. This consisted of two preliminary acts, that of grabbing a pen, followed by a piece of paper. In the two seconds it took to pick up a pen and grab a scrap, I completely lost my profundity. What’s worse, I looked at my hand and wondered why on earth a pen dangled between my fingers.
Now this may seem funny and benign, even if the reason for chemo brain isn’t funny, or benign for that matter. Yet, as frustrating as it can be, we learn to laugh at ourselves. We compensate as best we can. We learn compassion toward ourselves.
The problem is that others are not always so understanding or compassionate of the change in weather that occurs in our brains, much less willing to adjust their thermostats for us. They may not even understand why otherwise intelligent people have unexpected, uncharacteristic blackouts that leave them doe-eyed, forgetful or screwing up the simplest of tasks. Beyond the Baby Boomer “senior moments,” this forgetfulness can leave you grasping for things you learned in grade school.
When that happens in your place of employment, it has the potential for serious, irrevocable consequences. Shortly after being diagnosed, I’d read about an attorney whose chemo brain left him with spotty cognitive abilities that got in the way of practicing law. His employer let him go.
I’d thought it wasn’t much of a problem anymore for me, and mostly it’s not, but since returning to a fulltime work schedule, my fatigue level increases as the work week goes on while mental clarity decreases.
I had a layer of fog roll in this last week at work. It’s not the first time this has happened since chemo, but it’s probably the first time my error was glaring to my superior, where I couldn’t quickly correct it and make everything okay. He’d had the utmost respect for my abilities, so grateful to finally find someone competent. And then it happened. He seemed absolutely boggled. His eyes bore through me as if trying to penetrate the facade of my flesh to discern who swapped Eileen’s body for this zombie woman.
I should point out that memory has always been one of my strong points. Even after chemo, when I’d do the tests to strengthen cognitive ability on Luminosity.com, I’d tested four times as strong in memory as I had in the other areas. That, however, was because I wasn’t having a wave of foggy weather when I took the tests. Those tests are done in the quiet of the home without any multitasking.
On this day at work, however, without exaggeration, I screwed up numbers, miscounting days of the week — simple math that a second grader could do. I miscalculated a due date. It wasn’t horrible in the end. It wasn’t one of those mistakes that cost the firm money. It didn’t even embarrass them, but it did make the attorney scratch his head and question my ability to do a simple equation. Whenever the fog rolls in and affects my work performance, it usually has to do with numbers, especially dates. I’m not kidding when I say it’s second-grade stuff. Yet, when it’s happening, the synapses aren’t connecting and a thick cloud of confusion sends random data into hiding. The worst is when I think I know what I’m doing and I’m not even aware I’ve screwed up.
Chemo brain is like that. You don’t always know when you mess up or forget things. It’s dark in there! The damage is done before you even realize you’re brain dead.
In an office, there are other people, multiple voices and activities happening that make it difficult to focus when you’re already having focus problems. So when I screwed up on the date and I was called on it, I started to mutter something about chemo brain. He said, “What?” I caught myself and thought better of it. After all, to admit to chemo brain could be taken as an admission that I might not be the stellar employee he’d thought, that I might have a cognitive problem, that he’d better not relax and trust me because who knows when this bout will strike again. What if she doesn’t know that 2 plus 2 equals 4 forgodsake!? So I swallowed my excuses, looked at him and acknowledged he was correct in his calculation, and that I had screwed up.
For the rest of the day, I felt like crying. I was exposed. Chemo had ruined me and I wasn’t functioning at the level I once had. At my last office, I could hide it better. It also wasn’t so much a problem because my prior boss gave almost every instruction in an email, so essentially HE had written it down. I didn’t have to worry about not getting it, and the office was quieter. I could focus and work with little distraction.
I was relieved when a project came up the day after Bring Your Chemo Brain to Work Day. I redeemed myself, showed off when I had the chance and compensated for the day before. I was back in the good graces, but it’s scary because I can’t seem to control when the blackouts happen. I know they happen less when I’ve had a good night’s sleep.
I’ve decided next year, I will not celebrate Bring Your Chemo Brain to Work Day. I will boycott it. You can expect a petition that I will circulate with regard to banning chemo brain not only from the workplace, but from all aspects of life. It will be just another day. A better day, I hope. And I’m already working on a boycott slogan that would make a great coffee mug…