Tuesday, May 15, 2007
One of the major side effects that chemotherapy has had on me is chemobrain, especially in the aspect of memory impairment. I have a hard time remembering what tasks I have for the week. I write down lists and appointments but that doesn't help much since I don't remember that I've written them down. I just come across the slips of paper and notes in my planner and realize "Oh, yeah, I was supposed to do that yesterday." I have trouble recalling conversations I had a week ago or the plot of a movie I watched recently.
But as my abilities of intentional recall have faded I've become much more aware of unintentional recall. A scent or a sound or a position of my body will instantly remind me of a situation I experienced years ago. The smells of certain papers and inks transport me back to sixth grade science class, sitting at my desk in that windowless room and opening a new textbook. When I was in Michigan earlier this month, the smell of the first grass cutting of the year reminded me of a summer spent at my grandparents' farm along with all the related visions and experiences.
The smell of a certain kind of rubber reminds me of riding an elevator up to my oncologist's office for another dose of chemotherapy and instantly turns my stomach. Walking down the hallway to the bathroom at work reminds me of days when I felt sick and months when going to the bathroom meant opening an ostomy bag and squeezing out the feces.
Hearing snippets of a Muppets song reminds me of a commercial that played while I was in the intensive care unit, along with the feeling of my body in the hospital bed. And the taste of water from my Thermos cup. And the view from my darkened room into the yellow-lit hallway. And the routine of daily X-rays in the morning. And the feel of a blood oxygen monitor on my finger. And the sound from racks of instruments behind my head. My voluntary access to memories is disrupted, but brief sensations can release a torrent of recollections.
It's springtime in Washington, DC with a sprinkling of summer-like days. Many memories are triggered by the smells of blooming plants, the vision of greening foliage, and the angle of sunlight at this time of year. This will be my fourth summer in DC; before that all of my other summers were spent in various parts of Michigan or Missouri. So when environmental sensations trigger memories there is a limited number of experiences tied to these sights and smells.
One summer ago the return of my cancer was being diagnosed and I began a round of chemotherapy that made me feel awful. Two summers ago I was undergoing an enormous and complicated surgery, leaving me hospitalized for one month and struggling to heal for many months after. Three summers ago I was feeling sick, going through the tests that eventually diagnosed my cancer, and undergoing the first normalcy-mutilating surgery.
Until recently I was taking the anti-depressant drug Paxil to help suppress what the doctors call associative nausea. I wanted to try getting off of it to see if I could regain some of the mental sharpness and ambition that I feel I've been missing. My good days have felt better since stopping the drug, but these flashbacks are coming much stronger and more frequently.