What is Chemo Brain and How Do You Cope?

by Jane Ashley

Chemo brain is an expression used by cancer patients and survivors. This phrase describes the cognitive symptoms and effects that cancer treatment may cause. Although most often associated with the mental changes caused by chemotherapy, these mental lapses can also occur with radiation or hormone therapy.

Chemo Brain Is Real

We, as cancer survivors, have to have a sense of humor about the entire topic. There is confusion over how we spell this side effect — is it “chemobrain” or “chemo brain” — or is it what others call “chemo brain fog”?

Whatever we call it, these cognitive dysfunction is real and varies in intensity and duration from patient to patient.

What are the symptoms of chemo brain?

Chemo brain is a frustrating condition where cancer patients experience difficulty with memory and thinking. We can’t think as clearly as we once did or experience problems doing a task that we’ve always done. We can’t say the word that we want to say, even though we know what we want to say.

This “brain fog” is disturbing and may be embarrassing when it occurs at work. It might even put our jobs at risk if we have difficulty using common applications like Word and Excel. We might be making a presentation to a potential customer, and we can’t pull the word we need out of our brain.

According to Mayo Clinic, researchers don’t yet fully understand the brain fog that cancer survivors experience. Common symptoms include:

• Being disorganized
• Confusion
• Difficulty finding the right word
• Difficulty learning new skills
• Lack of concentration
• Memory recall, such as remembering a list of words
• Mental fogginess
• Problems with multitasking
• Short-term memory problems
• Shorter attention span
• Takes longer to complete a routine task
• Trouble remembering a conversation

I Know What I Want To Say

The most commonly reported symptoms are memory, concentration and executive function. If we’re still working, this translates into taking longer to complete simple tasks and longer to master new skills. Chemo brain is a frightening side effect if we are still working and particularly concerning if we are the breadwinner for our family.

What are some other reasons for memory and concentration problems?

Cancer patients rack up a complex medical history after they finish treatment and enter survivorship. We’ve had multiple procedures/surgeries requiring anesthesia or sedation. We’ve had chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and/or immunotherapy. We’ve had radiation therapy, perhaps more than once. We’re experienced more stress in a short time than non-cancer patients experience in a lifetime.

Many of us experience insomnia and other sleep issues. We may be depressed. We experience high levels of anxiety at scan times. The fear of recurrence hangs over our heads. Many patients have lingering pain and discomfort. Many women experience early-onset menopause as a result of breast or ovarian cancer treatments. Some men experience erectile dysfunction. Adjusting to life after cancer is challenging.

So our medical team has to sort out if these other issues may be the cause of memory or concentration problems.

Are there links between chemo brain and aging?

One of the troubling aspects of chemo brain is that age is a risk factor for cancer. The median age for a diagnosis of cancer is 66. Almost 70 percent (69.1 percent to be exact) of new cancers diagnosed are for patients between the ages of 55 and 84.

Perhaps, the harsh treatments, the stress and anxiety, the anesthesia, pain medications and the disease process itself contribute and accelerate the decline of memory and cognitive functions. Researchers don’t understand chemo brain enough to know the specific cause.

Lose A Word

Are there any treatments for chemo brain?

While there are no specific medications that treat chemo brain, our doctors do have some medications that may produce symptom relief. Some patients get relief when prescribed psychostimulants, drugs including Ritalin (methylphenidate), Provigil (modafinil) and Aricept (donepezil) — these drugs are usually prescribed for attention deficit disorder (ADHD). For some patients, these drugs work wonders. Generally, if a psychostimulant is going to work for a cancer survivor, it works within a short time. Other patients experience an adverse effect on their quality of life from the side effects.

Scientists are hopeful that exercise may help other patients since exercise helps prevent cognitive decline in older adults. Since a certain subset of survivors experience cognitive issues long-term, exercise would provide an affordable treatment without adverse side effects.

The best advice is make an appointment with a neurologist to help determine if your cognitive issues might be caused by something else that is treatable. Other causes of cognitive dysfunction include sleep apnea, anxiety, anemia, depression, Vitamin D deficiency or thyroid disease — all treatable.

Some cancer survivors find that brain games including Lumosity or thinking skills workshops are helpful. But other survivors are frustrated by these mental exercises.

Don’t just assume that cognitive issues are chemo brain. Don’t just assume that there is no help for your brain fog. Talk to you medical team and get a referral to a trained specialist who can help sort out your symptoms and possibly find some solutions.

Related Articles

8 Tips For Battling Chemo Brain

What is Chemo Brain Really Like-And How to Fight it

8 Ways You Have Gone Totally Chemo Brain

7 Tips on Coping With Chemo Brain

You Don't Have to Face Cancer Alone!

Watch this brief video that explains how cancer patients can connect with others on a similar path. Get support including answers to questions you have from people that have already been through it, connect with others and compare treatment plans, and search for resources to help you through it. 


Click To Join Us At What Next (1)

Blog Home