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Coping with Chemo Brain

July 08, 2014

You’re driving to work one morning, listening to the radio and enjoying your cup of coffee. Sure, there’s a bit of traffic but nothing major slowing you down. Then, just as you enter onto the highway, you realize—you can’t recall how to get to work. Is it exit 75 or 76? Do you make a right at the second light or the third? This is ridiculous, you think. How can you not remember how to get to work? You’ve driven there a million times.

Thankfully, you’re able to load the address into your GPS and make it to work on time. But as the day wears on, you seem to forget names, meeting times, appointment dates and other important information—simple things that you always remember. How can this be? You’ve never had a bad memory. How can you all of a sudden forget so many things that once came to you so easily?

Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common for people who have gone through cancer treatment. In fact, research shows that one in four people with cancer suffers from memory, thinking and concentration problems during or after treatment.

So, what is the cause of this mental fog? While other factors like age, fatigue and stress may come into play, it is often a direct result of the treatment itself. Research shows that radiation therapy, chemotherapy and other types of cancer drugs can cause thinking and memory problems—also known as “brain fog” or “chemo brain.”

While chemo brain is usually only temporary, these memory and concentration problems can last for months or even years. It can affect everyday life for many people, making it difficult to go back to work, concentrate in school or interact in social situations. Although it can be a challenge, there are several ways that you can help improve your thinking, memory and concentration after cancer treatment. Give these tips a try to see if they work for you:

Repeat What You Want to Remember

Before heading to work or a family event, try repeating what you want to say. Go over names, dates and other key information three or four times to help your mind retain what you want to remember.

Set Up Reminders for Yourself

Many of my patients find it extremely helpful to put small signs around their house to remind themselves of things that they need to do, like lock the door or take out the trash. It is also a good idea to pick a place in your house for objects that you tend to lose—and, of course, be sure to put them there each time.

Talk Yourself Through It

Often times, things like cooking or working on a computer can be difficult for patients and survivors who struggle with memory and concentration problems. This is because these tasks have multiple steps, and it can sometimes be difficult to focus or remember them all. When you’re working on a task that has several different steps, try whispering each step to yourself before you do it to help you stay focused and remember what comes next.

Plan It Out

Before starting your day, be sure to plan it out first. Write down everything—each task you need to do, how long it will take, where you need to go and how to get there. Use a pocket calendar, notebook, daily planner or even your smartphone. By keeping your schedule in one place, it makes it much easier to find the reminders you need later on. Also, be realistic about how much you can do in one day. Keep your schedule simple, and don’t overdo it.

Group Numbers into Chunks

This simple trick can be especially helpful for remembering phone numbers and other small details that you might easily forget. For example, the phone number 710-823-6314 can be repeated as “seven-ten, eight-twenty-three, sixty-three, fourteen.”

Don’t Stress

Managing your stress is a key way to improve your memory, thinking and concentration. Simple relaxation techniques can help you stay calm even in the most stressful moments.

It’s also important that you don’t let your memory and concentration lapses bother you too much. This only increases your stress level and can make the symptoms worse. It can be tough sometimes, but laughing or joking about the situation can help you cope. A little laughter can go a long way.

Track Your Symptoms

Keeping track of your symptoms is one of the best ways that you can manage your memory problems. When you notice a memory or concentration lapse, keep a log of what happened and what you were doing. Write down the time of day, which medicines you took and the situation you were in. This can help you notice any patterns and determine what may be affecting your memory.

Keeping a diary can also help you prepare for the times of day that the problems are most noticeable. That way, you’ll know not to schedule meetings, appointments or important conversations during those times.

Coping with chemo brain can be overwhelming, but incorporating these simple tips into your routine can be tremendously helpful. To learn more about memory and concentration changes after cancer treatment, visit the American Cancer Society website.

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