Make Your List, Check It Twice: Chemobrain and the Holiday Crunch

Patient Expert

Chemobrain is the general term for an array of cognitive-deficit conditions affecting cancer patients, particularly those who’ve undergone chemotherapy. Studies have shown that up to 30 percent of survivors will experience chemobrain, which the National Cancer Institute describes as “difficulties with concentration, memory, multi-tasking, and planning ability.”

Even at the best of times, chemobrain makes life’s myriad details a challenge. Add the holidays, and you’re looking at a recipe for emotional disaster! Here are some practical strategies for making everyone — including yourself — happy this season.

Make a daily/weekly plan

Don’t start out Monday morning wondering “What should I do first?” Make a plan Sunday night with specifics for Monday, and general goals for the week. When you identify everything you need to do, it’s easier to group similar tasks for efficiency.

Update your list every day

At the end of each day, cross off the tasks you’ve completed, and add any new ones that have arisen. Reorganize the result into a new list, focusing on priorities for the next day. If the same one-time task keeps showing up day after day, you’re procrastinating; just do it!

Send yourself emails

Keep your smart phone with you, and when you suddenly remember something you need to do, immediately email a reminder to yourself. Type “task” in the subject line, so you can search and find it later, if necessary.

Keep a notebook

Never mind the sticky notes. Keep a pocket notebook handy for all kinds of notes, from shopping lists to daily reminders. A notebook is much less likely to get lost or accidentally recycled than a piece of scrap paper.

Take a mental snapshot

You remember you need to fold the laundry, head downstairs, then start wiping down the breakfast table and forget the laundry. When you’re physically heading for a particular task but need to pass through a minefield of distractions first, “write” that task in your brain and take a mental snapshot. Focus on that picture until you reach your destination.

Get over being mad

Yes, chemobrain is awful. It makes you feel stupid, wastes precious time, and is just plain irritating! But getting angry or feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t accomplish anything. Instead, validate those emotions, then let them go. As in any situation, you can choose your attitude: be proactive and find solutions, not reactive.

Stay on task! No multitasking

You used to be the queen of multitasking. No more! Maybe you can gradually work up to doing two or three things at once, but for the time being, concentrate on one task, beginning to end. For those with chemobrain, multitasking is the sure path to getting lots started, and nothing done.

Repeat phone numbers out loud

You’ve just looked up a phone number on a business’ website, but forget it by the time you get out your phone. Try saying the number out loud repeatedly until you’re ready to dial. Even better, set the number to music. (If you’re into “oldies,” the refrain to “Beechwood 4-5789” works great.)

Browse Facebook with a plan

Cruising through Facebook is fun, but also a potential minefield of distractions. So many links to click, friends to get in touch with, birthdays you want to recognize… Two strategies: Go slowly, clicking links and commenting on posts immediately. You’ll cover less ground, but do so thoroughly. Or add prompts to your notebook to act on later.

Say goodnight

At the end of the day, when your head is filled with thoughts of tasks left undone and new ones clamoring for attention — say goodnight. Once you’ve made the next day’s plan, turn your inner taskmaster off. Meditate, listen to music, or do whatever’s necessary. Rest and sleep are your tired brain’s best friends.

See More Helpful Articles:

8 Tips For Dealing With Chemobrain

Chemotherapy’s Hidden Side Effect: It’s Devastating

This Is Your Brain On Chemo

New Study: Chemobrain May Last For Years

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning authorPJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.