Chemo Brain(44764)

Overcome the challenges of chemo brain.

Many chemotherapy patients report they are bothered by a mental fog that overwhelms their normal cognitive function.  They have more trouble than usual with:

  • Completing complex tasks
  • Remembering words
  • Concentrating
  • Staying organized
  • Paying attention

This phenomenon, known as “chemo brain” in the cancer patient community,  is increasingly acknowledged by the medical community as real, not imagined.  Although chemo brain usually dissipates once chemotherapy ends, it is terribly distressing while it occurs.  

Cancer patients go through a lot during their treatments.   Stressful surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy--these in turn lead to depression, anxiety, and other disorders that themselves lead to decreases in cognitive function.  This all clouds the picture for researchers trying to ascertain the exact causes of chemo brain.  Even patients who do not undergo chemotherapy can experience mental fog because of their cancer, treatments, and stress.

Dealing with chemo brain involves developing coping strategies for the short term, and lifestyle improvements to help restore total function in the long term.

In the short term, realize that this is most likely a temporary problem that will resolve within a year or two after treatment ends.  Focus on coping and adapting.

  • Prioritize tasks.  Take care of the most important jobs first, and let others wait or delegate.
  • Avoid multi-tasking.  Break complex tasks up into component steps, and focus on each step separately.
  • Make notes and lists.  Post-It notes work great to jog your memory at just the right time.
  • Use a daily planner.  Schedule your activities ahead of time.
  • Don’t go it alone.  Ask for help, delegate what you can, and consider joining a support group (usually at a local hospital--check with the American Cancer Society for a directory).

For long term healing, concentrate on exercise, diet, and sleep.

Exercise, and walking in particular, is crucial to mental function.  A 2010 study in the journal Neurology showed  that regular walkers have greater brain volume than non-walkers, and those who walked the most showed a 50% reduction in cognitive deficits.

It’s also important to eat a healthy diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables.  If you don’t eat blueberries regularly, consider the fact that they contain anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants  that have been found in brain structures related to memory, and at least one study in humans has shown memory benefits from blueberry juice.  

Lastly, sleep is the balm which heals many ills.  Getting a proper amount of deep REM sleep is known to have an impact on cognitive function.  In 2005, a study published in the journal Neuroscience showed that deep sleep is essential for converting short-term memories to long-term.

Be well!