Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chemo brain: 12 years later

In the mail this week was a letter reminding me it's time for a yearly check up that most women began having after they turn 40, but one I've had to have yearly since I was 30. The mammogram.

I'm considered high risk for breast cancer, because of the radiation treatment I received twelve years ago to cure me of the cancer I had then, lymphoma. Twelve years. That feels pretty exhilarating to type as well as to say in conversation, on the rare occassions the subject arises.

I've talked else where (such as in this interview) of my battle with cancer, and the number it did on my brain for several years afterward, when I was otherwise in remission, my hair had grown back, and I appeared a healthy 30-something woman walking around. What I was, really, was a slightly bewildered ex-fiction writer with her brain in a fog who'd pretty much given up on ever writing again.

God brought me through that dark valley, and five years post chemo I did begin writing again the types of novels that never stopped being my passion to write. The only difference was I settled on the historical genre (instead of fantasy, and contemporary).

Writing historicals takes a tremendous amount of research, especially when one picks an era she previously knew little about. Added to working hard to get back in the discipline of daily writing again without letting it overwhelm me, I had to give myself a crash course in Colonial, Revolutionary, and early Federal American history.

Noooo problem. Except that here's where a long term affect of chemo fog comes into play in my story. I don't have much of a long term memory anymore. Things I researched five years ago (okay, honestly? Things I researched a few months ago) are no longer where I put them in my head, and if I find I need them again for the current novel in progress, guess what? I get to research them all over again. So really my researching never ends, because I'm constantly reading up on subjects I've already researched. I do this now as a matter of course, because I know it's not going to stick for long.

In the beginning, it wasn't this way. 

It's not that I wouldn't have noticed this memory issue if I wasn't writing. There are huge gaps in my childhood, teenage years, and even early married years that I no longer recall. Frequently my husband will mention something that happened or someone we knew or somewhere we went decades ago and I draw a total blank. Sometimes I'll hazily recall it and realize I would never have thought of it again, ever, had he not brought it up.

Now, I'm also twelve years older than I was before I had cancer and chemo, so maybe some of this is simply age, but I tend to doubt that. Mainly due to the conspicuous timing of the onset of this memory issue with chemotherapy.

So what this all boils down to is that I simply have to work harder at the research aspect of historical fiction writing than I probably would if I'd never had chemotherapy. In some ways I'm glad about this. When I become frustrated, knowing I once knew some fact (or many of them) that I need for a current scene, and have to go back to my books to scour them for knowledge I should still have filed away, I think about the fact that I'm writing at all and know that it's not by my strength that these stories are getting written now. I have to lean on Him, every day. And I'm thankful, every day, for the strength, time, and mental acuity He's lent me to get these stories out of my head and onto the screen.

And I wonder what Jacob thought about when his hip pained him in the night. You know, the one God slipped out of socket when they wrestled, and gave Jacob his new name, Israel? Did that bum hip remind Jacob that getting by on his own strength, by his own wiles, led to grief? Did that stick he leaned on remind him of the God who invited him to lean on Him in order to walk upright? Did he see it as a blessing of insight, rather than a handicap?

I hope so. 

9 comments:

  1. I didn't know chemo affected the memory like that. But I'm glad the stories are still coming and you're writing them [s] God bless you and keep you.

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  2. Thanks Deniz. When I first noticed it I used to describe it as feeling like a computer with random files wiped clean. Lots of pre-cancer memories are gone, and I never know what's going to stick nowadays. I can usually keep the research upfront and center for the time it takes to write a draft, but if I set the novel aside for too long I'll have to revisit much of the research. I've taken to leaving footnotes throughout a first draft, sometimes with the reference of where I found the research behind the scene, so if/when I have to look it up again later I won't have to hunt so far.

    But having a swiss cheese brain makes it fun to rewatch movies.

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  3. Dear Lori,
    You amaze me. All that you have come through and you keep pressing on with the strength of the Lord. I have my own encumberances that make doing research and writing challenging at times so I realize to some degree what you must go through, but how could I possibly compare. You are a true survivor in so many ways!!! Thank you for the reminder, too, to get a mamogram as I am also surposed to have them yearly.

    I know it sometimes seems like you must be drifting through the fog on a cloudy day, though to so many of us you are a bright spot in our lives!

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  4. Carla, you know something I've noticed? A great many of the writers I know are facing physical challenges above and beyond the norm (some very much so), yet continue to run the race with so much heart and faithfulness I'm astounded. You've been an inspiration to me in that regard as well. I have so many great examples to follow, spurring me on.

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  5. I think your idea of leaving footnotes is a good one for all writers, Lori!

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  6. Deniz, especially as I've begun hearing that publishers want to know your sources for many details in historicals (reckon for contemps too)at some point during the editing process, and it would save time looking them all up again later anyway, or trying to recall.

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  7. Thank you, Lori! This deserves a hug so here's a virtual one! {{{ hugs }}}
    I noticed that, too, that many writers have physical challenges. Isn't the Lord gracious in giving us gifts of the heart that we can continue to do in His strength?

    Blessings,
    Carla

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  8. Lori, Thank you for sharing this. I just finished my 8th chemo last week and am so glad to be done that particular part of my journey. My memory is so patchy right now. I have a hard time remembering simple words for things and instead of searching for the right word I'll just spew out whichever one I can. The other day I told my kids to go get their bathrooms when I really meant backpacks. It's good for a laugh and being able to laugh in the face of cancer is oh so important!

    It is so encouraging to me that you were able to get back to writing. Writing is something I'm starting to think about again and I hope one day I'll have the energy to dive back into it full throttle.

    Heidi

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  9. Heidi, I'm SO glad to hear from you. Been thinking of you lately and praying for you, hoping you were walking through this journey with His peace. Oh, how I remember those word salad days, mixing up words and drawing a blank. That cleared up pretty quickly after the chemo was finished. The long term memory, well, that's still patchy for me, and so it just takes a little extra effort when it comes to research/writing. I'll be praying the chemo fog clears for you MUCH faster than it did for me. I've known writers who were able to get back into the swing of writing again much faster than I did. And I've always wondered had I known what it was I was going through in those years right after chemo, if someone could have sat me down and said it was normal and to keep trying (with patience and grace for myself) and not give up, would it have taken five years to start writing complex adult level fiction again. I don't know. I DO know God is in control of every one of my days, and has worked all that time of struggle for my good. I wouldn't undo it now. Thank you so much for commenting and giving me a glimpse of how you are coming along. Blessings to you, and health and healing and when the time is perfect, writing again.

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