Man with a pile of books climbing a ladder to a brain

Is Information Overload a Real Thing?

Sometimes I wonder what all of my accumulated cancer-related information is doing to my brain. Is it clogging it up, or is it pushing out other things?

Back in my newspaper days, we would say that an overlong story contained “everything you never wanted to know” about a topic. It was instead of the complimentary “everything you ever wanted to know.”

Since my leukemia diagnosis 15 years ago, I have absorbed everything I never wanted to know about cancer. Mostly it concerns blood cancer and skin cancer, but I have learned many other things about Cancer World. I could have done without it, but now that I have it, I try to do something useful with it when I can.

The good news is that my brain – or yours if you have accumulated a lot of new information – is not actually bursting at the seams.

New memories meet old memories

The Independent reported in 2015, “A study published in Nature Neuroscience earlier this year shows that instead of just crowding in, old information is sometimes pushed out of the brain for new memories to form.”1

I have a still-vivid memory of walking around a college campus reciting 60 lines of John Milton’s epic poem, “Paradise Lost” — a homework assignment given by the poet Richard Wilbur, who was to become the nation’s poet laureate. The memory feels fresh in my mind and is associated with a happy time.

As for the poem itself, I just have fragments.

"Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime, Said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom For that celestial light?"2

I think I remember this because I paced my walks around the campus to these lines.

This line feels pretty timeless:

"The mind is its own place, and in it self Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n."2

Supporting a friend

Many of us can scare ourselves to death by imagining the worst, or we can calm ourselves down by thinking rationally.

These two trains of thought came together for me when I was able to respond to a friend who was worried about the muscle spasms she was having after chemotherapy.

“Hmmmm, could be an electrolyte imbalance,” I wrote her in an email.

That was the case for me when I was receiving chemotherapy. A nurse would often show up in my hospital room in the morning and hang a bag of potassium on my IV pole after my daily blood test results came in.

To confirm my suspicion, I did an internet search for the words muscle spasms chemotherapy electrolyte imbalance.

The website Chemocare mentioned that some chemotherapy agents can cause an electrolyte imbalance. And it says that muscle spasms are among the symptoms of electrolyte imbalance.3

Electrolytes, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium, are the chemicals that keep the body functioning. I picture them working like the oil in a car. My friend might have been low on “oil.”

Putting my knowledge to good use

If she hadn’t done it already, she would need to get her blood tested to find out the exact cause of her muscle spasms. I told her that if she did have low potassium, it wouldn’t hurt to have a sweet potato.

I know about high and low potassium levels because at different times I have had both. When I had a high level after my stem cell transplant, I had to drink a disgusting drug called Kayexalate (sodium polystyrene sulfonate), which helps the body get rid of the extra potassium.4

I’m not sure what my friend ended up doing, but, as a new cancer patient, she said she is glad she has me as a resource.

I may have lost some poetry, but I’m glad I have gained some knowledge that may help others.

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