What is Chemo Brain?

What Is Chemo Brain?

The term “chemo brain” refers to the feeling of mental cloudiness or fogginess that can often occur when undergoing cancer treatment. Studies show that the majority of cancer patients will experience some form of chemo brain during the course of treatment. The intensity of its effects and the length of time that they last will vary from person to person.

Symptoms include a lack of short term memory, shortened attention span and difficulty concentrating. Misplacing things, stumbling over speech and trouble completing everyday tasks are also major indicators that you are experiencing chemo brain.


What Causes Chemo Brain?

Chemotherapy drugs themselves are often to blame when it comes to chemo brain. Because chemo drugs can cause restlessness, a lack of sleep can often contribute to chemo brain as well. The strain of surgery, radiation, anti-nausea drugs and other medications can combine with chemotherapy side effects to make chemo brain even worse.

Some studies show that genetic influences also play a part in determining whether or not a person is predisposed to experiencing chemo brain.


How To Manage Chemo Brain

Your doctor can be a great resource for managing chemo brain symptoms. Keep a diary of your symptoms to track the intensity of your chemo brain. Your doctor may want to recommend an appointment with a psychologist or occupational therapist to help develop a personalized plan to manage your specific symptoms, especially if they are effecting your social life, work, or school activities.

In some cases, neurological testing may be recommended to determine if there are any other medical issues contributing to your chemo brain. Here are some tips and tricks for managing "Chemo Brain".


Manage Stress Levels: The stress and anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis and treatment tends to make chemo brain symptoms worse, so learning to manage your stress level is key. Exercising regularly and making sure to eat a balanced diet help to reduce stress and anxiety. Making sure to get a good night's rest when possible is a great idea as well.

Exercise Your Brain: Work on crossword puzzles, word search or do Sudoku to help exercise your brain and keep your focus and memory in tact as much as possible. This is also a great way to pass the time while waiting at doctor's appointments or when receiving chemo.

Organize: If you are prone to forgetfulness because of chemo brain, write things down in a planner, journal or calendar that is easy to keep with you. Smart phone apps also come in handy for time management and routine. Keeping a routine will help you remember what steps to take throughout the day to complete daily tasks.

Memory Strategies: Many chemo patients swear by making up songs or rhymes to remember important names and dates while experiencing chemo brain. Simple clues can trigger the brain and help remember things that you thought you had forgotten.


Chemo Brain Post-Treatment

Most studies show that the effects of chemo brain will usually improve 9-12 months after completing cancer treatment.

A small number of people may still experience lingering chemo brain symptoms for years after treatment has ended. This could be caused by permanent neurological damage, but only a doctor can determine whether or not this is the case for each individual.

However, depending on how long it takes for your body to adjust after stopping the drugs, some people have noticed symptoms disappearing as quickly as 6 months. The time frame really varies from person to person.

Managing chemo brain takes time and patience, but talking about how you're feeling when dealing with chemo brain is a great way to start. Do what works for you and don't be afraid to ask for help from friends and family.


Additional Resources

Coping with Chemo Hair Loss

10 Tips for Getting Through Chemotherapy

How to Buy Cancer Hats

Tips for Managing Stress During Cancer Treatments

Cancer Survivors Share Their Best Advice

Preparing for Cancer Related Hair Loss



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