Chemo Brain: What it is and How to Cope

Author: Brian Jones, Clinical Pharmacist Chemo brain

Chemo brain is a term widely used to describe chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment. In other words, chemo brain is a mental fog caused by or connected to your cancer treatment. Even though it’s called “chemo brain,” chemotherapy is only one potential cause of this mental fog. Learn more about this common medical condition affecting many cancer patients before, during and after their treatment.

What Causes Chemo Brain?

Chemo brain isn’t always caused by chemotherapy. Sometimes you can experience mental fog from radiation, surgery, the cancer itself or a combination of these causes. Another potential cause for chemo brain is stress and anxiety, which often accompany a cancer diagnosis. Worry is normal as you go through treatment but it can take a toll on your mental health. The Mayo Clinic recommends tracking your chemo brain symptoms in a journal. This helps you and your doctor better understand your condition and how it’s connected to your cancer. Talk to your Hy-Vee Pharmacy Solutions (HPS) pharmacist if you think your chemo brain is a side effect of your medications.

How does Chemo Brain Affect Me?

If you are experiencing chemo brain, you may be wondering if it will last forever. Chemo brain affects everyone differently. The level of severity and the length of time chemo brain affects you may depend on several factors. The symptoms of chemo brain can be hard to recognize. You may not realize if you’re having trouble concentrating or you’re more unorganized than usual. In most cases, the mental fog starts to clear after you finish treatment but it may take a few months.

Who is Affected by Chemo Brain?

It’s hard to predict who will be affected by chemo brain. Your age and whether or not you’re receiving multiple kinds of treatment seem to affect your risk of developing mental fog. Chemo brain is often associated with breast cancer, but people with any type of cancer can experience cognitive impairment. Certain chemotherapies appear to have a greater link to chemo brain. Ask your HPS pharmacist if your chemotherapy is known to have mental fog side effects.

Is There a Cure for Chemo Brain?

Doctors know there is a connection between cancer treatment and mental fog, but they’re still learning more about it. Researchers are working to develop medications that specifically treat chemo brain. In the meantime, many doctors prescribe medicine to help people manage chemo brain side effects. Tell your HPS pharmacist if you are experiencing chemo brain. While there is currently no medication to treat the mental fog associated with cancer treatment, there are many ways to manage symptoms and cope.

Make Lists

Write down your grocery lists, to-do lists and any other lists that help you manage day-to-day activities. Many people find it helpful to keep a detailed schedule of their days. You can also set reminder alerts on your cell phone or email to keep you on-track for meetings and important events.

Eat Well

Nutrition is important for cancer patients throughout their treatment. Not only does it help keep your body strong, but it can also help your mind stay sharp too. It may be helpful to talk with a registered dietitian about foods that fuel your brain. HPS patients can talk to Megan Hall, the HPS registered dietitian, about how to get all the nutrients needed during cancer treatment.

Be Consistent

Designate one place for all of your important items such as keys, cell phones and TV remotes. If you always place these items in the same place, it may help you build a routine. You may even want to create labels for the area to help you remember.

Focus on One Task

If you’re having trouble concentrating because of chemo brain, focus on one thing at a time. Chemo brain can make multitasking especially difficult. You may want to clear distractions from your workspace or other living spaces.

Keep Your Brain Active

Brain puzzles and other mentally stimulating games keep your brain active. If you’re living with chemo brain, it might be a good time to learn a new language, practice Sudoku or pick up other hobbies that sharpen your brain power.

Keep Your Body Active

Regular physical activity can help you be more alert and reduce the effects of your chemo brain symptoms. Exercise makes people feel better. Walking, dancing, yoga and other activities can help boost your mood. It can be hard to exercise when you feel fatigued, so talk to your doctor about the right balance. Before you begin a new exercise program or change your current exercise routine, be sure to talk to your doctor.

Ask for Help

Chemo brain is a real medical condition and it’s common among cancer patients, so don’t be ashamed to ask for help. It’s important for you to share your memory problems with your doctor. The American Cancer Society offers a list of questions about chemo brain that you may want to ask your doctor. You should also tell your family, friends and caregivers so they can help you manage your chemo brain. If you are worried about how chemo brain will affect your performance at work, Cancer and Careers has tips for you.