Cancer. The gift that keeps on giving.
Not many people know this, but far beyond the reaches of the chemotherapy ward, even months and years after cancer patients leave their infusion chairs behind and take brave steps forward trying to find all the remnants of their former selves and stitch them all back together, the toxins from such heavy duty treatment continue to wreak havoc on bodies and minds.
There is the threat of painful oedema in limbs where lymph nodes have been removed, there is tight roping scar tissue that makes it hard to stretch. There is peripheral neuropathy that continues to numb our extremities and make simple buttons and jar lids as difficult to open as if we were ninety.
There is lung scarring left over from radiation, fatigue, dry skin, weak nails, dental problems and just a general distrust of our bodies.
But most frustrating for me, of all my long-term side effects of cancer, is Chemo brain.
The Anthracyclines that hopefully killed off all my cancerous cells, infortunately had similar effects on healthy cells as well. Chemo brain is a well-documented side effect of cancer treatments, and the drugs that were pumped through my veins to save my life are among the most likely to affect future brain function. While their toxicity was a necessary evil, not a day goes by where I don’t notice their impact; on my memory, on my mood, on my day-to-day brain function.
There are days where I feel like I’m losing my mind. I wrote about it recently as my application for university study. I had to write a piece detailing why I wanted to study Professional Writing. The following just flooded out of me, and while it felt like a strange application essay at the time, the words needed to be written down, so I did not fight them.
Something must have resonated with the course enrolment officers, because I am now a uni student once again. This time round, I couldn’t be more excited.
Here it is. I guess it explains that for some of us, writing isn’t a choice. It’s a need. I need to get my music out. It will not stay inside.
Yesterday I couldn’t remember the word ‘opinion’. There I was, mid-conversation with a colleague over lunch, and suddenly the word I was searching for, ‘opinion’, disappeared from my vernacular. Gone.
Now, I know everyone has moments like this, where words on the ‘tip of their tongue’ vanish the precise minute they are meant to appear. I’m sure right about now, you’re sitting there thinking, ‘no big deal’. The problem is, and I haven’t said this to anybody else yet…this forgetting…it’s been happening a lot lately and I’m terrified. I have always prided myself on my ability to articulate well. It’s one of my defining qualities, and I am starting to feel it slip away from me.
At 38 years of age, I am showing several, small but noticeable signs of early-onset dementia: forgetfulness, memory loss, even the ability to recognise people’s faces. At first it was pretty insignificant: a couple of missed appointments, hazy recollections of prominent life moments, torturous hours spent trying to remember the most ridiculously simple words. But lately it’s become far more obvious.
Most excruciating, are the multiple times I have met someone, and then subsequently ‘re-met’ them again after forgetting their face and name completely. When I reply to, “Hey, have you guys met?” with a “No,” but the other person says in a confused voice, “Yes we have,” my heart sinks. Then I cartwheel through the depths of my brain trying to stir up any small flicker of identification. Just a whisper of a memory that might serve correct. More often than not, I am left flailing in an awkward pause the size of China, clumsily feigning recall but retreating as hastily as I can. People must think I’m so rude!
Why all this excruciating back-story when you really just want to read my application to enrol in Professional Writing?
Well, so far, the writing section of my brain seems in tact. I write and I am free of the awkward pause, the lost word, the misplaced memory. Where the immediacy of speaking often leaves me anxious and clammed up, writing feels easier. In writing, there is no befuddlement, no frantic wading through the depths of my mind for missing puzzle pieces. Somehow, the chasms melt away at my keyboard and I am able to prise open my clamshell and the words still come.
Last year, I found myself writing through a cruel and unfair time. I wrote because I was searching for meaning and needing to purge my mind of grief and fear. I wrote because I had no choice but to.
Now, I write to hold onto myself.