Considering the similarities between chemotherapy and Alzheimer’s

A cancer survivor and caregiver notes several possible commonalities

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by Ray Burow |

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Today, I am cancer-free, but five years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy. Five years prior, my sister had been diagnosed with the same disease and received the same treatment. She is also cancer-free now, by the grace of God.

This may seem odd, but I believe it was also by God’s grace that our mother, for whom we provided care, passed away before either of us began our battles. We loved our mother and weren’t anxious for her to leave us, but we were grateful that she needn’t endure Alzheimer’s disease and our bouts with cancer simultaneously. Additionally, taking care of her properly while we had cancer would have been problematic. Our mother was in a better place.

As I was undergoing chemotherapy, I realized it was similar in some ways to battling Alzheimer’s. For starters, there are good and bad days with each.

After her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, my mother was more with it, so to speak, on good days. She was less tired, able to communicate better, and more like her old self.

On days I received chemo, I was also more like myself. I felt good. I could walk a distance and enjoyed work and hobbies. In the days leading up to chemotherapy, and for a few days afterward, I remained energetic, but as the poison designed to kill my cancer did its job, the light grew dim. I was tired, slow, listless, and bored. All I could do was move from one couch, chair, or bed to another.

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The boredom factor

Before Alzheimer’s disease, my mother was very active. She walked several miles a day and volunteered in multiple capacities. She gardened, canned the food she and my father grew, enjoyed her big dog, and spent many hours with friends and family. She was gregarious.

Then, as her dementia progressed, the light grew dim. My mother was never one to sit idle, but the disease diminished her desire to enjoy the activities she once loved. However, she often spoke as if she were still doing those things in her daily life.

During the mid to late stages of the disease, she’d just sit there, often with her eyes closed, on the not-so-good days. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I wonder if she grew bored, as I did during chemotherapy.

“I’m bored” wasn’t a phrase I could voice as a child. “Oh, you’re bored?” my mother would say, before assigning a job that left no room for boredom. I learned early on to find something to do and be active. Then I underwent chemo.

I erroneously thought that on my slow days following chemo, I’d catch up on reading and watch some great old black-and-white movies. That was such a foolish idea. Because I’d never experienced chemotherapy firsthand, I was ignorant of what to expect.

The treatment depleted my strength; all I could do was sit and be idle. I was bored for the first time in my life.

Did Alzheimer’s disease have a similar effect on my mother? She didn’t work on her word puzzles, read magazines, or even read her Bible, though she never lost interest in the word of God. I read her favorite passages to her each day, and she enjoyed them. Occasionally she’d say something like, “You know, I think it’s good to go see a movie.” I wish I’d acted on more of those impulses.

Lesson learned

All the nagging in the world couldn’t have gotten me off the couch, lazy chair, or out of bed when I was under the full effects of chemo, and no one pushed me to do anything beyond what I was able to do. However, as a caregiver, it was occasionally necessary to insist that my mother get up from her chair for her own good. We had to keep her somewhat active to stay mobile and physically healthy. I’m sure there were times she didn’t feel like taking a shower or traipsing to various school events for the grandkids. She did it, though, and I hope it improved her quality of life.

Chemotherapy improved mine, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. I learned something from chemo that I wouldn’t have known otherwise: It was more difficult to observe my sister’s battle than to experience the struggle firsthand. My sister agrees. She believes it was harder to watch me go through cancer than to go through it herself.

I’m sure if she’d been given the choice, our mother would have spared us from watching her fight through dementia. I sincerely hope it was easier for her to experience than for us to watch.


Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, Bionews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease.

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