The Joy of Chemo Brain

Untitled charcoal on paper by jparadisi

Recently, I spent time exchanging cancer stories with patients, which is one of my favorite things to do. Although I’m an oncology nurse and a cancer survivor, I don’t get to do this as much as you might think, because patients come to the clinic for medical care, not hear me confuse my personal cancer experience with theirs. However, when asked:

▪  Does it feel weird when hair falls out?

▪   Is chemo brain is real?

▪   Should I buy a wig?

I volunteer my experiences, which are:

▪  Not everyone feels his or her hair falling out. I did, and it felt like I had my hair pulled back for hours in a too tight ponytail.

▪  Chemo brain is real. I experienced it as living submerged, just below the surface of normal clarity. I could not do even simple math equations to save my life. Often I couldn’t remember certain words or the names of coworkers unless I saw them daily. It felt as though my brain flipped through an internal “Rolodex” searching for the information, similar to the sensation felt when a word is “on the tip of the tongue.” I hit an all time low while watching a sitcom with my family. The laugh track sounded. They laughed, and I couldn’t understand the joke. I was sure I’d lost my mind.

▪  Maybe. I stopped wearing my wig soon after the shock of alopecia wore off. I had a habit of resting my fingertips on my temples, under the wig, and wiggling it. I did this in a restaurant at dinner with my sister. She told me to stop it. I realized I didn’t need the wig. It remained perched on its stand on my dresser like a small furry animal for the rest of my treatment. They are a good idea if you want to keep your cancer experience private.

Talking about my cancer experience reminded me someone had told me someday I’d miss it. Crazy as it is, she was right. Cancer brings some gifts. The best one was the opportunity to slow down my life and readjust its priorities to promote joy. I learned that there is no such thing as a balanced life. Life is a juggling act. The trick is in knowing which balls in the air make you happy, and which ones make you frantic. I enjoy juggling many balls in the air at once, but only if I feel a deep connection to each one. I choose every ball carefully.


  1. “Life is a juggling act, and the trick is knowing which balls in the air make you happy, and which ones make you frantic.” Thanks for that.


Comments are closed.