July 22, 2023

Does Cancer Impact Your Intellectual Self-Esteem?


I know I’m smart.  And, that I.Q. tests don’t prove a damn thing.  Still I took a cheesy online I.Q. test three years ago just to prove to myself that I’ve got brains.  There’s lots of talk about how cancer affects our body image, but what about how it impacts our mental and intellectual self-esteem?

Since cancer, my brain has become a sieve.  I feel inadequate at dinner parties when I can’t spit out cool facts from NPR.  I feel silly defending my positions in conversational arguments; I get one point out and the rest disappear. Forget about retaining facts I read in the newspaper, recalling plot lines of books, or being able to follow driving directions or recipes without rereading them 100 times.

I’ve mostly learned to cope with my fear of sounding stupid in front of friends, colleagues, or strangers.  It’s a matter of overcoming my vanity and not caring what other people think. (Do they even notice my mental short- comings or is the flashing neon arrow pointing at my brain just my own baggage?)

What’s harder are the limitations and frustrations my memory presents to me personally. I’ve thought about going to grad school or working on a PhD but my current brain function truly isn’t capable of the work.  Instead, I’ve satiated my intellectual curiosities in more manageable ways, like writing my book Everything Changes.  Organizing and retaining research information for my book was challenging, but it was an independent project that I navigated on my own terms.

I don’t put much stock in beauty, charm, or humor.  Compassion and intelligence have always been what I prize.  So it’s been a struggle making peace with my scattered cancer brain.  There’s some real sadness there for me.  But while my mind feels deficient, I’ve learned how to move beyond feeling like crap about it and started making the most of what I’ve got.  I’m still a stellar creative thinker and believe I’ve still got it going on in the critical thought department.

Next week I’ll write more about my tricks and tips for dealing with brain fog and forgetfulness.  But for now, I’d like to know your experiences.  Have you faced intellectual self-esteem issues as a result of illness?  How do you handle the emotions that go along with it?  We joke a lot about chemo brain in the young adult cancer community, but have you found a place to talk about how challenging cognitive deficits really are?

Enjoy the fruits of my mental labor!  Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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