How Reading Cleared Up My Chemo Fog

Overexpressed is thrilled to introduce its first guest blogger JENNA SHILLINGBURG. A professional bookworm, Jenna writes about “all things bookish” and will be published here every first Friday of the month. Welcome, Jenna.


A librarian, bibliophile, and Breast Cancer Lifer, JENNA SHILLINGBURG lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband and two cats. She was diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer de novo ER+/PR+ in September 2018 at the age of 32. She is currently medically retired but still strives to get books into the hands of those who need them. She runs a free reader’s advisory website at https://thebookhangoverisr.wixsite.com/home.


I’ve always found reading to be a truly enjoyable experience. Since I was a little girl I was teased for carrying a book with me wherever I went, starting at the dinner table and extending to amusement parks and the movie theater. It was such a huge part of my life that I pursued a second Master’s Degree in Library Science to become a Librarian. I found out I had Breast Cancer the day I started my dream job as a Children’s Librarian.

I thought reading would be a great comfort to me during my diagnosis and treatment, but after my first chemo session, I noticed a heaviness in my brain that felt like fog. I soon discovered this foggy feeling had a name: Chemo Brain. My first master’s degree is in Victorian Literature, and I have always enjoyed reading the classics like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins. While trying to unwind after my diagnosis, I reached for my well-worn copy of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and my heart sank when I realized I couldn’t comprehend the book even though I’d read it at least five times through.

It took me several griping sessions with friends, family, and new *AMAZING* coworkers to realize that this brain fog was not my fault. Since I was having difficulty reading my beloved classics, I decided to try something less challenging.  Being a Children’s Librarian gave me an arsenal of Young Adult and Middle-Grade fiction to test my focus at a lower Lexile level.  I started with The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.

This book was selected for a program held at my library and was getting rave reviews. I was thrilled to discover that my brain could handle Middle-Grade fiction. I read some very cute books like Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate and Flunked (Fairy Tale Reform School #1) by Jen Calonita. I found some delightful books I would never have read otherwise but wish I would have taken this opportunity to reread Harry Potter.

During this time I also found that audiobooks were a great comfort to me. When I couldn’t hold my eyes open long enough to read and was in that twilight sleep between true sleep and alertness, I could follow the narrative of audiobooks. They were fantastic after radiation as well when I was too fatigued to do anything but lay in bed.

I gave myself the rest of the year to detox after I was done with my IV chemo before I reached for adult and young adult books. After a couple months, I graduated to general fiction. I found that gradually increasing the reading difficulty helped my brain relearn how to read more challenging books. I am thankful for reading, now more than ever, because it saved my sanity in a time when I was truly lost.

Some of the books that have brought me the most comfort in the 3-years since my initial Metastatic Breast Cancer diagnosis are:

  • Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen – Allen started writing when she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I’ve devoured every single one of her books that I can get my hands on. Garden Spells is a story about the importance of family, the special bond of sisters, the magic found in ordinary moments, and an enchanted apple tree with a mind of its own.
  • A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn – an amusing and thought-provoking *cough* Lady *cough* Detective mystery set in  late Victorian England. This series follows the adventures of Veronica Speedwell, enlightened woman, butterfly hunter, and scientist and her partner Revelstoke “Stoker” Templeton-Vane, peer of the realm, navy surgeon, scientist, and all around curmudgeon.

I’ve slowly been able to build my brain back up to pithy literary fiction, but I’m nowhere near where I was when I got my Master’s and was consistently reading literary criticism on fiction in Georgian and Victorian-era England. I do, however, think I will get there someday.

If you are struggling with comprehension and memory issues just be patient with yourself. Enjoy what I call popcorn or cotton candy fiction. It’s the kind of reading that is light and fluffy and good for your soul. The librarian in me shouts from the roof *ALL READING COUNTS AS READING!* So read. It doesn’t matter if you read comics, picture books, audiobooks, or *dun dun dunnnnnn* Chick Lit as long as you enjoy it. And be kind to yourself. Your body is doing the best it can and is trying to keep you safe. Give it some popcorn as a reward for watching out for you.

Take care and check me out on Friday, March 4 when I talk about all things bookish. For questions or comments, please write to thebookhangoverisreal@gmail.com or follow me on Instagram @thebookhangoverisreal.

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