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The Voice of People With Breast Cancer


Our Voices Blog

Memory Blank: the Stupid Side of Tamoxifen, Chemo and Radiation

By Adriana Ermter

In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.

Is there anyone out there who feels like I do? Like they’ve lost a part of their memory to tamoxifen, chemotherapy and/or radiation and will never get it back? If you are like me, do you ever wonder where your memory went, like, is it on the beach in Puerto Vallarta or maybe it took a sabbatical and didn’t provide a return date?

This is my life now. Not all of it, thankfully, but just enough of it for me to feel incompetent during moments when I really need to draw on my memory but can’t, because the tiny little fragments of what just happened are as elusive as grabbing a handful of water and stuffing it into my pocket to save and drink later.

Pre breast cancer, I was sharp as a tack
Before I went through rounds of radiation treatment and popped a chemo-infused pill of Tamoxifen into my mouth each day, I was sharp, alert and a rockstar at remembering and reciting my daily to-do list. I could name every single one of the many, many, many perfume bottles cluttering the shelves in my bedroom (yes, I have a bit of an obsession with scent) and describe in detail what each one smelled like, complete with the specific fragrant notes that swirled inside. While working out on the Elliptical machine at the gym, I could answer Wheel of Fortune’s word puzzles before the tv show contestants had a chance to say, “I’d like to buy a vowel.” And I never used to stand adrift in the coffee aisle of the store desperately trying to conjure up the name for the dark roast blend I bought the last time and really enjoyed.

Now, I just feel dumb
The worst part, for me, is how my newly dulled memory impacts my job. Not my consulting writing and editing work, I take too many notes and am too much of an organization queen for that to happen. Rather, it’s when I’m doing research and I am seeking a specific date or name or event to validate the editorial point I’m making and I’m mid-thought in my mind, mid-sentence on the page with the words half typed and as I toggle between my Word document and Google, when suddenly, for the life of me, I can’t remember what I’m looking up. This type of memory lapse also occurs when I’m coaching at the pool and my team of artistic swimming athletes have swum a section of their routine and I’m mentally logging their individual corrections to give to them, yet by the time they all resurface, I can’t recall a single one. And there I am, in both instances, either blankly staring at the computer screen or into a team of expectant faces and I’ve got nothing. Literally nothing. And it’s horrible.

Solutions that help jog my memory
Sure, I’ve created working solutions for myself such as, taking between 2,000 and 5,000 milligrams of B12 and drinking 12 glasses of water every day. I go to bed early and wake up before sunrise. I walk outside and breathe fresh air. I keep a notepad and pencil next to my laptop and jot down thoughts, notes or reminders as needed. In meetings, if I’m asked to recall an interview, a fact or a moment and I can’t, I turn to my notebook or I ask whomever I’m meeting with for verbal prompts, context, and descriptions to push through the brain-addled fog. Poolside, I video tape my athletes with my iPhone and speak their corrections into the recording for them to hear. But I still can’t capture everything I want to say, my memory still betrays me, like the wiring between it and my mouth no longer work. I know the insight and thoughts are there, I just can’t get them out and so sometimes, a lot of times, even the videotaped swims are short on commentary.

The randomness of it all
What makes this process even more frustrating is that if you asked me what the wallpaper in my childhood kitchen looked like; the exact words my father and I shared during a heated argument when I was 19; or what my grandparents, my Aunt Melissa and my Aunt Marilyn’s home telephone numbers were 15 years ago I could tell you. I can chronologize every job I’ve had and my boss’s name and even describe every piece of clothing I owned and wore in Grade 7. (It was a pretty much a rotating uniform of Ralph Lauren polo shirts, Cotton Ginny sweatpants and Keds or penny loafers—all with a bobbed haircut, by the way. What can I say, I idolized Molly Ringwald.)

Worse still, is that when my immediate need for the all-important, in-the-moment information has passed and I’ve been unable to provide it and consequently have mentally beat myself a thousand times over, the answers will drift in. Hours late, mind you, and usually when I’m alone at home and have no one to tell because the cats don’t care. It’s frustrating and I don’t know what the recourse is or if there even is one.

All I know how to do is be honest
The only thing I know I can do is to be honest about what’s happening. I often hear myself apologizing for not being able to remember and then, explaining that sometimes my brain does this and that I can’t control it. I don’t know if people understand this and accept me as I am or not. But I do know that dwelling on what others may or may not be thinking and saying about me will only take me down the rabbit hole and I’m pretty sure Alice already proved what a bad trip that was.

So, instead, I work on being proactive and responsible for my own emotions. Still, sometimes, it’s humiliating, because not remembering makes me feel dumb or helpless and even angry. Angry that cancer has taken yet another piece of me. Yet if I’m lucky, I can laugh at my unreliable memory and move on. I haven’t perfected the formula for this reaction, but I’m working on it. It’s all I can do, well, at least when I remember how…

Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Figure Skater Fitness, Living Luxe and IN Magazine, as well as online at,, and The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her two very spoiled rescue cats, Murphy and Olive. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter