Losing Your Uterus, Losing Your Mind: Scientific Validation for Memory Loss After Cancer

When Samantha R. stumbled across a study suggesting that hysterectomies may cause memory problems, she clicked, read, and shared on our I’m A Cervivor Facebook group, kickstarting a dynamic discussion. Samantha shares her experience, her relief in finding the article, and the community of support that her post generated:

“Chemo brain gets a lot of discussion and attention, but not the topic of woman who had a hysterectomy or who have early onset menopause and who have similar fogginess. I actually did not have a hysterectomy but rather chemo-rad-brachy (stage 2b), which was oh so fun.  As radiation and chemo essentially killed my uterus and ovaries, this study about hysterectomies and memory loss caught my eye and resonated.

A wildlife ecologist, Samantha was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 36 while in the midst of her postdoctoral research. The stress of the diagnosis and treatment on top of research and academics were brutal.

“After cancer, I couldn’t handle stress like I used to. I used to be able to do the cramming and the crunch time. But after treatment, I had really bad ‘chemo brain’ for at least a year until it finally started getting better. I still don’t feel as sharp as I was before, even though it’s been eight years since my diagnosis. As an academic with a master’s degree and a PhD, this had been really hard for me because my work, at the end of the day, depended on my brain. And of course brain fog doesn’t just impact work, but so many parts of life. My recall is slower. My short-term memory is slower. Things take me longer. It’s been hard for me to accept that my brain now functions differently. I used to be quick and make witty remarks. Now three days later, I come up with a response!”

Samantha was poking around online when she stumbled upon the article, New research suggests hysterectomies may cause memory problems.

“It’s about a first of its kind study conducted in rats (not humans), but the implications that our uterus plays a role in memory is just really interesting. I found it worth sharing because having an explanation gives women like us validation for having memory loss. It is nice to have some scientific acknowledgement of what we are going through.”

Newly published research has challenged a long-standing belief in the medical community that uteruses serve no purpose in the body except pregnancy. When researchers at Arizona State University performed hysterectomies on rats, the animals’ memory suffered.

Samantha’s Solutions: Coping Skills and Lessons Learned

Samantha now works for the federal government to protect and rebuild habitats for sea birds and sea ducks, specializing in restoration after oil spills. She shares some of the memory loss coping skills that she employs:

  1. Become a note taker: I take a lot of notes. I use a bullet journal. I now have a huge collection of hundreds of notebooks I’ve filled and it keeps growing, but it’s working for me.
  2. Keep a “done” list: Every day I write down not just to do lists, but “done” lists – so I remember that I did something. I capture calls I made, e-mails I sent, discussions and conversations I had.  My “done” list is my biggest coping strategy. My short term memory was really impacted from my chemo and the early menopause that resulted, so my journals and my “done” list are my recall mechanism. 
  3. Be proactive when it comes to therapy: My therapist has been amazing in coaching me to not beat myself up and to move forward and to be okay with not being okay. I had a hard time being weak – not just physically, but mentally weak. I’m a huge advocate of starting therapy early, when starting treatment, to get ahead of the roller coaster ride. I’d fallen into a severe depression after treatment was over, and I wish I’d started therapy earlier. 
  4. Don’t be afraid of medication: Medication has helped me battle my depression and panic attacks. My body doesn’t create estrogen and progesterone anymore. That makes a person crazy! It is not in your head! 
  5. Find your escape: I read a lot to escape. I’ve started meditating. I also started art therapy and do woodworking and jewelry making. I recently learned how to weld. I’ll never forget when I was in treatment and a social worker was trying to talk to me about art therapy and painting. I was like ‘screw you, I’m dying here.’ But now, years later, art has been my coping mechanism. It has become my sanity. (But I will never tell someone that during treatment! Only after!)

Eight year cancer survivor Samantha is a wildlife ecologist in San Diego, CA. When she is not protecting sea birds and restoring habitat for sea ducks injured by coastal oil spills, she volunteers with Burning Man and has attended the art festival 5 times. Learn more about Samantha’s Cervivor Story here.

Cerviving with Lymphedema

Living life as a Cervivor involves tweaking one’s daily life to find a new normal that provides the best quality of life possible during and after treatment.  This involves researching options available for relief from side effects, advocating for the best medical care, networking with other Cervivors, and trying a variety of remedies to feel well. It can be exhausting physically, mentally, and financially. It does not end because many side effects are lifelong conditions such as Lymphedema.

Shawna with her compression hose, to control her lymphedema symptoms.

As an almost 13-year Cervivor of Adenocarcinoma 1B2, I have mastered the art of this “Cerviving” thing very well because I am used to it. It is just part of who I am. Every little ailment or pain does not typically trigger me or cause me to fear I am having a cancer recurrence. I know in some areas of my health I have some “special needs” and I embrace them. I always counted myself blessed to not have lymphedema. In 2005 I had 44 lymph nodes removed, a radical hysterectomy, and radiation. Recently, after a hospital stay for double kidney infection, I developed painful symptoms in my pelvis that were negatively affecting my daily life. Soon I would be making some serious lifelong changes to my daily life to manage the discomfort I was feeling. Cancer has created a voice in me that advocates for the care I deserve and researches the best options to treat my conditions. I was not finding relief after being discharged from the hospital with double kidney infection. While doctors were thinking my issues involved my immune system fighting off the kidney infection, my gut told me to push on to find a second opinion. My husband noted that my health was creating a sub-par quality of life for me daily and it was making me feel down.  I had to make many phone calls and eventually travel to a different hospital for an amazing team approach. After several specialists and tests, it was determined that this was a lymphocyst in my pelvis and that I did indeed have lymphedema. Crud! I was already managing every other side effect, and now this? Cancer is always the gift that keeps on giving.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is the swelling in the arm or leg that occurs if the flow of tissue fluid (lymph) out of the extremity is restricted somehow. Our lymph system consists of a network of vessels, like blood vessels except these carry a clear fluid called lymph. In my case, the lymph was not properly percolating through small bean-sized lymph nodes that cluster in my pelvis area. And well, it hurts A LOT. I often describe how it feels, by comparing it to a balloon sitting on my lady parts and there is a definite area inside my thigh that hurts ALL THE TIME. When I walk I can feel the pressure and it makes me limp.  My leg feels heavy and numb for hours or days at a time as if it is asleep, but it won’t wake up. Half of my lower extremities feel more swollen than the other half. The pressure pushes on my sciatic nerve and it hurts to sit and sometimes it throbs when I am not even moving. When I am having pain, an hour standing feels like three hours. I just want to put my leg up and keep it straight because sitting or bending it really isn’t much fun. The pain just sits there inside my left pelvis area and it won’t go away. I sometimes want to cut my leg off or get a spinal block, so I can’t feel it anymore. My leg sometimes feels like it is not even part of my body.

$8k Flexitouch Machine I use daily for lymphatic massage.

Hooked up to the Flexitouch.

A plan had to be developed to help me manage the pain and daily living. This involves compression garments for my left leg, a special lymph node massage machine I use daily, manual lymph node massage throughout my day, special wraps I sleep in at night, dieting to put less pressure on my groin area, doing individualized daily exercises for pelvic pain, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding hot showers/baths or extreme cold. My least favorite part is putting on my compression stocking each day. Putting them on feels as difficult as childbirth some days, but they truly help. Just this week my physical therapist, Dr. Lili Wells started a special therapy called “introital stretching” because the tissue inside my vaginal area is as stiff as a board. This is supposed to really help reduce my pain in this area after as few as six sessions. I am so grateful that my husband, Aaron is going to learn how to do some massage to help me keep up with this throughout the week. I also had my medical provider help me acquire handicap parking until (or if) my symptoms improve. Some days are better than others, but I am not going to let it slow me down.

Adjusting to life in compression wear in the summer heat!

I have been very blessed to have great insurance to help offset the expenses of dealing with lymphedema.  I had several CT Scans, an MRI, a Lymposcintigraphy where they shot dye up my feet (so very painful), and they did try to aspirate the area with a guided CT. This did not seem to help for very long and it may be repeated in the future, but also cauterized next time. I will try anything to make the pain stop. There are cutting edge procedures in Lymphedema that I am looking into.  A very small number of U.S. institutions treat lymphedema with a comprehensive multidisciplinary lymphedema service. These places are trying to change the perception that it is an untreatable, lifelong condition. Dr. Wei Chen of the University of Iowa feels that medical professionals have an obligation to treat lymphedema because they are causing it due to surgery and radiation.  I do not know if I am a candidate to be treated at one of these institutions, but it is exciting to read about “Lymphies” finding more permanent relief with new procedures. I recently made an appointment to see if this could help me in the future.

Physical Therapy with Dr. Wells.

I have always tried to boldly “Walk in my Cervivorship” because to me that is the best way to overcome any adversity and advocate after my cancer experience. There is no forgetting that I had Cervical Cancer. Some days, managing all of this makes me cry because I remember what life was like before cancer and I feel it puts limitations on me that complicate my daily life. At times, I become distracted because all I am thinking about is what I need to do to get ahead of the pain or what is the next step in my daily regimen. But then the perseverance I have within my soul rises and grabs back my joy while I prance around in my rock star compression stockings ready to take on the world.

Read Shawna’s Cervivor story here.