Monday, June 24, 2013

Chemo Brain: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It

Marla Crider, Fayetteville, Clinton, breast cancer, patient stories
My charred Jimmy Dean muffin
Ahhhh, summer… The season officially kicked off on Friday, June 21, when the longest day of the year proved to be all that and much more for the author of this blog.    

Thursday produced another restless night prompted by profuse sweating and insomnia. I managed to get about two hours of sleep, then gave up all hope of catching a few additional hours of shut-eye about 2:30 a.m.   I retreated from my bedroom to the great room, where reading, listening to music and drinking Sleepytime (Yea, right) hot tea had become my new normal. I heard the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette hit my front door at its usual time of 4:30 a.m.  I was eager for new, more current reading material.  After just a few minutes of scanning the newspaper, I began having difficulty concentrating on the words in front of me.  It was as if my brain was hesitating and couldn’t translate what the eye was seeing to the human computer between my ears.  This frustrating experience seemed to be happening more frequently since the chemotherapy drugs - adriamycin and cytoxin - were first injected into my system in late May.

Friends who recently completed chemotherapy and are now cancer survivors have shared stories with me about the phenomenon referenced as "chemo brain."  Symptoms include forgetting words in the middle of a spoken or written sentence; being unusually disorganized; a short attention span; difficulty multitasking; a constant state of confusion; and, short term memory issues.  There was no question that after only two treatments, I possessed many of the classic signs of chemo brain. Well, that's just great.  Now, I have to contend with no hair and an impaired brain. 

After my futile attempts at reading the Friday morning newspaper, I decided to take a shower and dress for what I expected to be a busy day at the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.  The end of the state’s fiscal year was quickly approaching and with it comes a multitude of accounting and year-end purchasing tasks.  I could only hope that my brain was up for the challenge.

Typically, my day begins about 7:30 a.m., when I occupy my office, turn on the computer and prepare for an onslaught of email messages and questions from the staff.  Before tackling my responsibilities, I unlocked the door to the staff break room and decided to microwave a Jimmy Dean breakfast - turkey sausage and egg on English muffin -  to lessen the potential hypoglycemic effects of the insulin I injected 30 minutes earlier.  I wrapped my breakfast in a paper towel and placed it in the microwave and proceeded to key in 1 minute and 30 seconds on defrost as the directions instructed. 

I was feeling rather sluggish and decided a cup of java was necessary to get me through the morning.  My friend Gloria’s office is the central location for fresh coffee.  Since she is the executive assistant to the Department’s executive director, there is always coffee available should legislators or constituents show up for a meeting with “Mr. Big” and request a little caffeine boost.

When I walked into Gloria’s office, she looked up and started a conversation about my newest wig, which was celebrating its coming out party on the first day of summer.  After a quick chat about the color and style of my synthetic locks, I filled my coffee mug and headed to the break room to retrieve my breakfast sandwich.  I knew something was amiss when I didn’t hear the microwave beeping, indicating that my Jimmy Dean muffin was defrosted and ready for a quick ride on the microwave carousel for an additional minute.  (With chemo brain, I have also noticed that “chemo mouth” comes into play, as well.)  “Oh, shit…shit, shit, shit,” I said repeatedly and loudly as I walked over to the microwave.  I could see smoke inside the oven and immediately hit the cancel button.  Not thinking (duh… I hadn’t done that clearly in almost a month!), I opened the microwave door for a split second to glance at my damaged breakfast. I immediately shut it when I saw a quick puff of sausage and egg-laced smoke billow out. And then the longest day of the year became just that….
The expansive Arkansas State Capitol grounds
It was approximately 7:50 a.m. when both the interior and exterior fire alarms positioned throughout the State Capitol Complex started sounding. In addition, emergency lights flashed like a 1980s disco bar and the most obnoxious, pre-recorded female voice in the history of pre-recorded messages repeated over and over, “An emergency has been reported, please evacuate the building” or some variation thereof.  Stunned at what was happening, I walked into the hallway and told everyone that I was the culprit.  About that time, the Department’s designated safety officer approached and I explained it was smoke from the microwave and there was no fire.  She called building security and shared my story but the spokesman said everyone still had to evacuate per policy, which was exactly what was happening.  When I looked outside our offices into the atrium of the 5-story, Multi-Agency Complex (Big MAC for short), people were spilling out of their offices to their assigned reporting stations, located at various points throughout the expansive State Capitol grounds. 

As luck would have it, Mr. Big (not quite the Sex in the City version) and I bumped into each other in the hallway just as the alarm started sounding.  I fessed up immediately and declared that I was the guilty party.  He started laughing and said, “See you at the bell,” which was the Department’s designated site, located just north of the State Capitol.

Tourism Director Joe David Rice and I, as well as a few other staff members, all exited out the front door of the building and walked towards the bell. I could hear people griping about a fire drill before the official start of the work day.  Others were thankful for the extra smoke break.  (It was difficult to hold my tongue when I heard that one.)   As the staff, Joe David and I approached our destination, it was already apparent that wig-wearing Marla had a new reputation as the state employee who single handedly shut down state government with a Jimmy Dean breakfast muffin.  As we walked towards the bell, I did what any guilt-laden person would do; I took a bow to applause and laughter.  As we joined other Department employees, I quickly defended myself by explaining that I had cancer and suffered from chemo brain and wasn’t responsible for my actions.  Everyone started laughing because Mr. Big had already bet the group I would use that exact justification.  

Almost ten minutes had passed and the pre-recorded message was still blaring over the loud speakers. People continued to pour out of buildings, including the State Capitol.  As I watched nearly 1,000 employees cover the grounds of the vast state government campus, I recited a prayer over and over to myself, “Please, Lord, don’t let Governor Beebe be among those forced to leave their offices.”  I was envisioning an early retirement.

There was something unusual about this evacuation from previous fire drills.  We had been outside for nearly 15 minutes and there had been no sign of any fire trucks.  Even Mr. Big commented about the lack of emergency vehicles. I continued to field jokes from every direction as we waited…and waited… and waited for the “all clear” sign.  Twenty minutes into this never-live-it-down fiasco, we finally heard the sound of sirens, signaling the Little Rock Fire Department was on its way.  When I saw two fire trucks, then the huge snorkel truck turn the corner, I was mortified and terribly regretful for whatever transpired between the Jimmy Dean muffin and the microwave. 

Approximately 40 minutes after the first fire alarm sounded, we were told it was safe to return to our offices. I requested that a human shield surround me as we walked back to the Big MAC building in case I was targeted by an irate state employee who wasn’t familiar with my positive, easy-going demeanor or my pre-cancer, pre-chemo common sense. My colleagues complied.

Dozens of people asked me what happened.  The only thing I could figure out was that my nimble fingers entered 11 minutes and 30 seconds on the microwave keypad, instead of 1 minute and 30 seconds.  Everything happened so fast, I wasn’t really sure about the details.

When Gloria and I re-entered the Big MAC building, there were several firemen in the hallway.  I avoided eye contact for fear they would whisk me away and make an example out of me.  We entered the front door to the Department and were overwhelmed by a putrid odor.  How could one breakfast sandwich cause such a ruckus, I wondered.

I decided to return to the scene of the incident only to find the charred remains of my breakfast exposed on the microwave table.  I said a quick prayer because it was apparent that a potential disaster was averted.  As I stared at what was left of the sandwich, my chemo-impaired brain tried to comprehend all that had happened in a mere 45 minutes. As I shoved the blackened Jimmy Dean muffin into the trash can, an Arkansas Building Authority representative walked into the break room.  He asked if I was responsible for what had happened; I admitted that I was.  He said he would remove the trash bag, which would help eliminate the foul smell in the front section of offices.  I thanked him then he told me that an incident report would have to be filed detailing the morning’s events.  I gave him my business card, which contained all the requested information. I immediately explained to him that I was undergoing chemotherapy and my decision-making skills were impaired.  I also told him if he attempted to chastise or lecture me, I could guarantee that I would burst into tears, which was true.  He said he understood and left with my business card in hand. Geez… an incident report.  Apparently, I was going to have a "record" of sorts.

A few minutes later, I passed a State Capitol police officer in the Department hallway.  I avoided eye contact as he walked past me.  He did an about face and returned to the desk of a staff member.  He asked who he should talk to about the “incident.” I saw her glance my way.  I walked up and identified myself.  He wanted me to know that a report would have to be filed. (Hearing the term “incident report” twice in less than five minutes made me wonder if a mug shot would soon follow.)  I handed him a business card. The officer went on to tell me there was actually a silver lining to the microwave debacle.  He said the fire alarm system malfunctioned and didn’t automatically dispatch the Little Rock Fire Department as programmed.  He explained that was the reason for the extended wait in the morning heat.  The State Capitol Police Department was forced to manually dispatch the fire department, which should never happen.  Officer Nice Guy indicated the faulty alarm system would be the focus of the incident report, rather than my inability to accurately punch time into a microwave keypad.  I thanked him for attempting to make my day a little brighter.  He smiled and told me not to worry about it.  Sure, I thought, no need to be stressed about the role I played in emptying state government offices for 45 minutes and becoming the butt of endless jokes every time an emergency vehicle approached the State Capitol.

When the work day finally ended and I walked to the waiting elevator, I heard a co-worker say, “Have a good weekend, Muffin.”  My punishment had begun and would undoubtedly continue for years to come.

I learned the hard way that chemo brain is real and can lead to risky behavior.  It’s a side effect of chemotherapy that can complicate the simplest tasks. From forgetting a word mid-sentence to finding it difficult to recall a colleague’s name when standing face-to-face with the person, chemo brain is ever present in those of us undergoing treatment.  We can only hope that friends, family and co-workers understand when we sometimes look at them blankly. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for inspiring us.
    Keep it up and continue on what your doing. Visit my site too.

  2. Good vibes. Everyday, all day. God Bless :)


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