Chemotherapy Brain and the Nose That Took Over the World

This essay was originally published on September 17, 2014.

If you’ve been reading this blog faithfully, you’ve seen me mention the term “chemo brain” on occasion. The best way to describe the feeling is a general state of befuddlement, coupled with a sense that you aren’t quite sure where you are, or why you are for that matter. It’s not a pleasant state to be in. Moreover, for someone who earns a living as a writer, it can be downright prohibitive. No one really expects anyone undergoing chemotherapy to be able to work, but writing is not always working; taking away a person’s ability to string words into coherent sentences can be tantamount to taking away one’s ability to breathe.

Speaking of breathing, there is one rather pernicious side effect to the “dark days” of chemo: your sense of smell goes absolutely haywire. This too can be hell on the psyche, mostly because anything and everything smells terrible.

Like many other experiences I’ve been having since my cancer diagnosis, I find the smell issue to be rather ironic. In a former life, I had quite an extensive perfume collection accumulated over many years, which was unethically disposed of by someone who did not appreciate the art of a fine scent. I’ve harbored a slew of bad feelings over that event, and having to endure everything smelling like a cess pool at high noon has regurgitated them in a most unpleasant way. When you must lie in a dark room with the door closed in order to avoid even the most innocuous of odors assaulting your poisoned senses, your thoughts take over, and you can’t avoid wishing that the world looked and smelled a little rosier. If the smell of fruit-scented hand soap, freshly brewed coffee, and even freshly laundered clothing makes you retch, life is most certainly at a low point.

My chemo brain, my altered sense of smell, and the rest of me are not happy campers these days. Try as I might to find humor in all this, I wonder if I will ever see a time when cancer treatments will not involve vile chemicals that reduce one’s physical and emotional states to rubble. Or even better: let’s figure out how to prevent or maybe even cure this insidious disease.

What I’m learning is that the outward side effects of chemotherapy are really the ones that are the easiest to digest (pun intended). I can deal with being bald and pasty, but I can’t deal with a malfunctioning brain and everything smelling like shit.

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