Dealing with Chemo Brain

As a cancer patient, it’s important to know about the side effects you could experience during treatment. One such effect is “chemo brain.” 

Chemo brain is the common term used to describe the cognitive decline you may experience before, during, and/or after cancer treatment, even if you have not been treated with chemotherapy. You may also hear your doctor use other terms, such as cognitive dysfunction, cancer-related cognitive impairment, cancer therapy associated cognitive change, or post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment in reference to this particular side effect. 

Often described as a mental “fog,” chemo brain is marked by a lack of focus, the inability to concentrate, and trouble processing or remembering information. While some cancer patients only experience these symptoms for a short time, others may experience them for years. 

Currently, researchers are working to find answers to the many questions regarding the memory changes that cancer patients who receive chemotherapy experience. While there is still much to learn, it’s clear that chemo brain can be a frustrating and debilitating side effect of cancer and its treatments.

Signs and Symptoms of Chemo Brain

The following are examples of how patients have described the symptoms of chemo brain:

  • Finding it hard to concentrate, focus, or pay attention
  • Forgetfulness or memory lapses
  • Being disorganized, when they usually aren’t 
  • Feeling disoriented or extremely confused
  • Inability to do more than one thing at a time (multitask) 
  • Difficulty recalling or remembering details such as names, dates, and common words

Keep in mind that the severity of these symptoms can range greatly. Some patients notice significant changes, while other cancer patients only experience subtle mental changes. And sometimes, others don’t notice them at all. Many patients don’t even bring it to the attention of their cancer care team until their everyday life starts to become affected. 

Causes of Chemo Brain

Unfortunately, there is no clear cause of chemo brain. And, as mentioned earlier, it can even affect patients who have never had chemotherapy. Because of this, it has been suggested that the cause could be a combination of factors including:  

  • Cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, or targeted therapy
  • The cancer itself (particularly brain cancer)
  • Age at the time of diagnosis
  • Fatigue
  • Poor nutrition
  • Surgery and the anesthesia used during surgery
  • Pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Medications, such as antibiotics, antidepressants, pain medications, anti-nausea medications, or heart medications 
  • Infection
  • Sleep issues 
  • Anemia (low red blood cell counts) 
  • Stress and other emotions such as anxiety and depression, that often occur with a cancer diagnosis and treatments 

11 Ways to Manage Chemo Brain

The good news is that there are many ways you can help minimize the effects chemo brain can have on you. Here are some suggestions to help you cope: 

  1. Keep track of your schedule, creating reminders on a planner, computer, or smartphone. 
  2. Log important information such as phone numbers, addresses, meeting notes, and even movies or books you’re interested in on a handy list (written or digitally). 
  3. Get an ample amount of rest and sleep.
  4. Eat a nutrient-rich diet that includes a lot of brain-boosting vegetables, such as broccoli, beets, celery, and dark leafy greens.
  5. Block off certain amounts of time to accomplish specific tasks. Time blocking is a simple, yet powerful technique that can structure your routine in a way that increases motivation, improves focus, boosts efficiency, and reduces stress.  
  6. Avoid distractions so you can focus completely. When possible, only take on one task at a time.  
  7. Exercise regularly, but only if you are able. Light to moderate activity is good for the body and the mind, even during cancer treatment, if approved by your oncologist. 
  8. Take note of your memory problems, jotting down when they happen as well as what’s going on at the time they occur (medications that you’ve taken, time of day, situation, etc). Doing this can help your doctor narrow down what specifically may be affecting your memory. Ask for help when you need it. Tell your friends and loved ones when you experience symptoms of chemo brain, so they can give support and help with daily tasks that might drain your mental energy. 

In cases where cognitive problems are long-term, your RMCC oncologist may prescribe other methods to help manage them. These may include: 

  1. Cognitive rehabilitation and cognitive training, which can help improve cognitive skills and coping abilities.
  2. Medications, such as stimulants, antidepressants, cognition-enhancing drugs, and drugs like morphine, which block how narcotics work.
  3. Occupational therapy and vocational rehabilitation to help patients handle job-related skills and the activities of daily living 

When to Talk With Your Oncologist 

Remember, your RMCC oncologist and cancer care team are here for you. If you experience any symptoms of chemo brain, be sure to reach out to us. It will help us to know when the problems started and how they affect your daily life, so we encourage you to keep track of each time you notice problems. 

Some questions you might want to ask your RMCC care team could include: 

  • What is the cause of my chemo brain?
  • What do you recommend I do to improve my memory? Or my ability to focus?
  • Will these symptoms last a short or long time? Is there treatment for my symptoms? 
  • Is there a certain type of therapy I should participate in? 
  • Should I see another type of doctor who can help me with this? If so, can you recommend one? 

Each appointment with your oncologist can result in an overload of information. In addition to talking with your cancer care team, consider sharing what you’re feeling with friends and family. It can be such a relief being able to talk with someone you care about and trust.