Spiritual Growth Through Chemobrain

Spiritual Growth Through Chemobrain

James Randolph Hillard, MD

Sep 01, 2016

Chemobrain is real; just ask any of your patients. I know that scientific research on the subject has been equivocal, but oncologists and psychiatrists are starting to believe in the condition. One of my many unverifiable theories is that the reason that CB took so long to be recognized by physicians is that the original group who most vigorously complained about it were patients with breast cancer. And they were nearly all women. And we know what women are like. [I am being ironic. No hate mail, please.] Only when XY people like me started to complain did the condition gain widespread medical credibility.

Hmm, at least some of that last paragraph was a digression, but digression is one of the many symptoms of chemobrain. I do not consider digression to be incapacitating, as long as I can eventually find my way back to the original topic.

Memory impairment is not really incapacitating either, but it can show up in unexpected ways. I tend to misplace the names of things (and now that I think about it, I also misplace actual things more often than I used to). I usually remember the item or person or concept I am looking for right away, but it can take a while to find the right name. One of my friends who has benign age-related forgetfulness, but not chemobrain, once told me, “I am sure that I will remember that. I am just not sure what day I will remember it.” (Maybe what I have is just aging, or maybe it is a combination of aging and CB. Life is, after all, just one uncontrolled experiment after another.)

My spelling has deteriorated too, from its already suboptimal level. Spell check, of course, helps with that. I can usually succeed in compensating for my anomic aphasia by instituting a sort of mental spell check, which allows me to substitute appropriate words that I can remember for words that I cannot remember.

The chemobrain symptom that has bothered me beyond all others is having lost my ability to multitask. I used to pride myself on my multitasking ability. In fact, it was one of the traits that I most valued in myself. I thought that it was my special gift and my secret weapon. (I just looked up the spelling of that basic English word.) I could simultaneously keep track of the income and expenses of my department, the paper that I needed to revise, the personnel issues that I had to deal with, and the soccer schedules of all of my children. People often told me, “I don’t know how you do it.” At the time I took that as a compliment, but now I realize that it contained not just an element of skepticism, but also a note of censure.

For better or worse, I can only do one thing at a time now. Initially, I was only in touch with the “worse” part, but now I have realized that there really is a “better” part, as well. For example, I think that I am now a better psychotherapist because I am really present for my patients in a way that I wasn’t when I was multitasking all the time. I think that, for the same reason, I may be a better father, son, and husband than I was before.

Which finally brings me back to “spiritual growth through chemobrain.” One of the key concepts in a lot of religious traditions is “mindfulness.” Mindfulness means being able to experience the moment and its connectedness to the rest of the world, rather than just being preoccupied with the past or with the future or with judging the moment itself. Multitasking is pretty much the opposite of mindfulness. No longer being able to multitask has made it easier to be mindful.

Having cancer unavoidably leads to losses: physical losses, mental losses (the ones that have bothered me the most), financial losses, career losses, and more. There is nothing to do but accept these losses and let them go. Only after letting them go is it possible to move on to something new. As the Buddha taught, clinging attachment is the cause of suffering, and that teaching rings true whether or not one is a Buddhist.

Two spiritual practices, which I have developed through my chemobrain, have helped me to deal with my losses and to find a certain degree of equanimity. These practices are:

  1. Every morning, I sit quietly with my eyes closed and focus on my breath for 10 minutes. With each breath in, I think “accept”; with every breath out, I think “let go.” Whenever thoughts of the past or the future intrude, and whenever thoughts of what I have lost or of what I have gained intrude, I breathe in “accept” and breathe out “let go.”
  2. Every morning and every evening I take a few moments to say “thank you” for all the things that I used to take for granted.

Now, please do not think that I am one of those people who says that “you have to find the gift” in having cancer or having to deal with something else that is very bad. I believe that there is probably a special place in Hell for people who say such things. What I am saying is that, for me, letting go of what I have lost has allowed me to accept and be grateful for what I, for the moment, have. I wish that I could have started doing this without getting sick. But that was all in the past. Now I accept it, and I let it go.



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