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Chemo Brain

Anne Webster

Since a doctor gave me poison pills that left
my heart a swollen slug, killed off my bone marrow,
set my lungs to clamoring, I can get brain-freeze
without eating a snow cone. When I walk
my neighborhood’s knotted streets, lost drivers
stop to ask directions. After thirty years, I know
the pretzel-turns, but when they motor off, I wonder,
Did I say left when I meant right? My husband
gets that look when words change lanes
without bothering to signal. Like soap bubbles
they pop from my mouth–“bird” for “tree,” “cat” for “dog.”

I know I’ve done it again when my grown children
all but pat my head. As if by magic, plastic wrap,
detergent appear in the refrigerator. After errands,
my car comes home nicked and scratched,
as if it’s sneaking nips on the sly. I’m afraid
to drive anywhere new, one wrong turn
I’m lost forever. Just ask me a simple math problem–
numbers dissolve into my skull’s black hole.
Even as I curse that doctor, my brain wakes,
a baby from a nap, stretching till its eyes pop open.
A tsunami of panic recedes, but, as with an errant lover,
it’s a long time before I am able to trust again.

About the poet:

Anne Webster’s twenty-five-year nursing career ended with a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. Since then, she has been writing full-time, both poetry and memoir. Her poetry collection A History of Nursing was nominated for the 2009 National Book Award. She is currently completing a second collection and has contributed poems to Intensive Care and a chapter to The Poetry of Nursing.

About the poem:

“I’ve had many misadventures with my health in recent years, and when at my sickest, I sustain myself with the thought I can write about this! Hence this autobiographical poem.”

Poetry editors:

Johanna Shapiro and Judy Schaefer

Call for Entries​

Pulse Writing Contest​​

"On Being Different"

About the Poem


11 thoughts on “Chemo Brain”

  1. Thank you so much for your words, Anne. Your experience gives hope that the big Chemo Fallout, LLC truck parked in my own head might actually drive off someday…

  2. Anne Webster, your work pops with images, sounds and colors. There may be occasional wrong words uttered in life, but the words written in this poem are all the right ones.

  3. Maureen Connerty

    I feel that I understand where you are coming from!
    My chemo brain is/was a result of infusions not pills.
    A total of 35 infusions, 5 different agents over 16 months with an added bonus of a pulmonary embolism in month 8!
    My treatment ended 4 months ago.
    All tests clean/clear at this time & I am grateful to share that my brain is slowly becoming more reliable.
    And that precious brain in my head is covered by a 1.5 inch mass of chemo curls!
    To life ;-))

  4. I love your precise and telling details! I have had what I think of as chemo brain lite from a combination of very powerful antibiotics w/GI side effects and painkillers. I also had the odd items in the refrigerator, but unfortunately my cottony brain also did the reverse–cheese in the shoes and ice cream! in the tee shirt drawer, big mess. i’ve never had actual chemo, but now know what I can expect if I ever do, and thank you!

  5. Anne Webster, you have given me hope on a fitful day wherein my brain, my mouth and my speech couldn’t synchronize to express my thoughts. The thoughts were dissecting even as I struggled with saying the words and I felt such sadness to even temporarily lose my articulate voice.
    Here you have shown how strong, empathetic and true your voice is and awakened a hope in me listening to your poet’s voice that I may yet discover another form for my voice.

    How is it that in my sixties what I don’t know becomes more clear to me so changed from my younger ego’s desire to prove what I did know. I’m in search of teachers now wanting to fill in all these potholes and empty voids. You are such a teacher. Thank you for this gift of hope, a gift of words, bravely moving on not seeing, not sensing what is ahead.

  6. You captured the frustrations and pure silliness of of chemo-brain beautifully, especially “My husband gets that look when words change lanes without bothering to signal.”
    I remember once asking my sweet, long-suffering husband for a cufflink. He didn’t have the faintest idea why I might want one. Which, of course, I didn’t; the object I required was a paperclip!

  7. Wonderfully illustrative poem
    Reflect the full human condition as we navigate our lives..
    I would love to share Anthroposophic Nursing with you,
    A series of Rhythmic Einreibungen treatments would be balancing and harmonizing. Where do you live, I may know of a practitioner.

  8. Devastating and beautifully expressed. There are many who will identify with this poem, with the complex physical and emotional realities of “chemo brain.” Spot on.

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