If it seems cancer treatment has left you feeling forgetful or you’re having trouble concentrating, don’t despair — you’re not imaging it, and you’re not alone. You might be feeling a side effect known as chemo brain.
Physicians have fancy, official sounding names for the effects patients report during and after chemotherapy, like cancer treatment-related cognitive impairment, but most cancer patients simply call it chemo brain.
And since the 1990s, chemo brain has been a recognized, if not entirely understood, phenomenon.
Some of the more common symptoms of chemo brain include:
- Feeling of general confusion or “fogginess”
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble remembering specific details like names, dates, or even major events
- Difficulty multi-tasking
- Feeling disorganized
The exact causes of chemo brain aren’t known
Breast cancer survivors were among the first to report the effects of chemo brain, and many researchers believe the hormone therapy that often is part of their long-term care may play a role. But they certainly aren’t the only cancer survivors who experience it.
According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, 45 percent of cancer patients report some degree of cognitive decline after chemotherapy.
Despite years of study, researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes the symptoms. Some chemotherapy drugs may cause them, and they could be linked to some of chemotherapy’s common side effects, such as anemia and fatigue.
According to the American Cancer Society, there may be other factors, in addition to chemotherapy drugs themselves, that likely contribute, including:
- Other drugs used in treatment, such as steroids, anti-nausea, or pain medicines
- Low blood counts
- Sleep problems
- Hormone changes or hormone treatments
- Other conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure
- Poor nutrition
- Patient age
Some studies also suggest that high levels of anxiety and depression may contribute, and may help explain why many patients have problems with brain fog but others don’t.
How long the effects last can vary greatly: For some the brain fog clears as soon as treatment ends, for others it may linger long afterward.
Dealing with the effects of chemo brain
Currently, there are no medicines to treat chemo brain. But the American Cancer Society, along with cancer researchers, have several recommendations to help mitigate its effects:
- Talk about it. Consider telling friends family and, if you’re comfortable doing so, co-workers. Chemo brain is nothing to be embarrassed about, and once they understand what you’re experiencing, most friends and family will want to help.
- Consult your doctor. If certain medications are causing your symptoms, it may be possible to change them. Or, your doctor might be able to offer suggestions for dealing with the symptoms.
- Keep a detailed calendar. Whether it’s on paper or your smart phone, storing appointments, schedules, notes, to-do lists, and reminders in one place makes them easier to find. Store important websites, phone numbers and addresses, meeting notes, and even movies you’d like to see or books you’d like to read in the same spot. If you need extra reminders, post sticky notes in the office or at home.
- Exercise your brain and body. Just a few minutes several times a week of moderate exercise can improve memory function, and combat the fatigue and depression that can accompany cancer treatment. But don’t leave your brain out of the exercise equation: Take a class, do word puzzles, or even learn a new language.
- Get enough rest and sleep. This is vital to brain function for everyone, but especially during cancer treatment when fatigue can be a problem.
- Eat healthy. Studies have shown that eating more vegetables can keeping brain power surging as you age. It’s a good idea to keep a food journal to track what you’re eating.
- Set up a routine. Following routines and schedules will help keep you on track, while deviating from them can cause distraction. It also can help to designate a spot for keys, bills, paperwork, or any other important items, and keep them there.
- Focus. Save the multi-tasking for after your treatment is completed.
- Get help. Friends and loved ones can help with daily tasks to cut down on distractions and help you save mental energy.
- Track your memory problems. Keep a diary of when problems occur, and what’s going on at the time: what medicines have you taken, how much sleep you had the previous night, etc. Recording these details could help you and your physician or caregiver sort through some of the triggers for memory problems, and potentially help you ease symptoms.
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, please notify your oncologist ASAP. If your oncologist feels that neuropsychology testing or cognitive therapy would be beneficial, they can connect you to the appropriate staff member in the clinic.