Erin Michaela Sweeney

writer + speaker + yogini + cancer thriver

Fond but Hazy Memories

This adapted excerpt from my forthcoming memoir will appear in an upcoming issue of High Hopes, published by City of Hope.

In and out, in and out. There was a certain stability when I was in the hospital in the spring and summer of 2011, a sort of predictability of routine, that simply wasn’t available at home with my precious son, a growing toddler. The hospital setting allowed me to faze out, tune out from everyone and everything. Though the chemotherapy treatments could be brutal at times, nobody expected me to keep up my end of the conversation, or type witty email replies, or remember the plot to the half-finished television show in front of me. There was an odd sort of comfort during my stays in the hospital that is strange to recall.

Yet the chemo led to what’s called “chemo brain.” I first began reading about the side effects of chemo on patients’ cognitive abilities during my second round. Here are six examples of chemo brain from the American Cancer Society’s website:

  • Forgetting things that they usually have no trouble recalling (memory lapses)
  • Trouble concentrating (they can’t focus on what they’re doing, have a short attention span, may “space out”)
  • Trouble remembering details like names, dates, and sometimes larger events
  • Trouble multi-tasking, like answering the phone while cooking, without losing track of one task (they are less able to do more than one thing at a time)
  • Taking longer to finish things (disorganized, slower thinking and processing)
  • Trouble remembering common words (unable to find the right words to finish a sentence)

At times, I’d hit all six at once; those were some of the hard days when I’d go back to bed.

When I started chemo (which for me was around the clock for the first eight days), it was challenging to focus and retain information to the extent that I couldn’t keep track of a book’s plot. So I watched movies on DVD. By the time I arrived at City of Hope, movies were too long for my attention span, so I watched drama and comedy television shows.

I recently read an online article about long-term chemo brain. The New York Times piece, reporting on a five-year study of patients who had received matched unrelated donor stem-cell transplants (my type of transplant), stated that side effects of chemo can last five years or longer. Verbal memory and motor skill problems were twice as high for the patients (more than 41 percent) than for the control group. So moments of “on the tip-of-my-tongue” might be with me for a while yet.

I felt a renewed confidence once I arrived at City of Hope. From the calming fountain—with its sculptured family dancing atop the water element—which greeted me at the main entrance, to the professional yet caring staffers guiding me through the maze of buildings, I trusted that I was in the right place.

Front entrance fountain, courtesy of City of Hope

Front entrance fountain, courtesy of City of Hope

Dr. Stein and his colleagues understood the importance of having time at home with family and friends, away from the hospital environment, between chemo treatments. The emotional boost I gained by spending time with my little guy gave me the strength to go through additional rounds of multiday chemo—I was usually in the hospital eight to ten days per round—from April through June.

But, ah, those springtime walks with the mature Jacaranda trees in bloom, lining the street with violet-blue flowers. Between the heat of summer and the nose-nipping chill of winter, spring is the proverbial time of renewal. I reconnected with my son on those meanders around the block. We never made a hasty beeline for the corner, but rather paused to examine a rock or a flower, sometimes to rest or reflect. Then we would continue on our way, occasionally waving to neighbors. Those strolls during the cool spring of 2011 are fond but hazy memories for me, Impressionistic yet lasting.

Close-up of Jacaranda tree, courtesy of A Sacred Life: Soul Food for the Journey by Sheri Kling

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2 Comments

  1. Yvette Barbari

    So beautiful and poignant. Just ordered your book so I’m excited to read it! So happy you’re alive and I’m so proud of you for writing your memoir.

    • erinmichaelasweeney

      Ah, my sweet Cousin Yvette. Thank you for your continued support through the ups and downs of this thing we call life. I love you!

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