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Chemo Brain—Is it Really a Thing?

Feeling disorganized? Foggy? Forgetful? It’s no coincidence that these changes in memory and concentration overlap with cancer treatment and even diagnosis. This feeling is commonly referred to as “chemo brain,” and even though this mental cloudiness may not have a specific cause, it is real.

What is Chemo Brain?

Medical professionals describe chemo brain as cancer treatment-related cognitive impairment or post-chemotherapy cognitive impairment. It is usually a short-term decrease in mental sharpness. Patients with chemo brain describe feeling forgetful, having difficulty concentrating or remembering details, having trouble finding the right word or multi-tasking, or taking longer to finish tasks they used to do quickly.

Despite its name, chemo brain may not be caused by chemotherapy. Researchers aren’t completely sure what leads to chemo brain. Some symptoms can get worse after chemotherapy or radiation, but some people who haven’t had those treatments still notice symptoms.

While cancer treatment may affect clarity in the brain, other factors may contribute. Stress, anxiety and depression after being diagnosed with cancer can affect the brain. Some cancers can produce chemicals that affect memory. Side effects of cancer treatment, such as anemia, infection, insomnia, pain or nutritional deficiencies, also can contribute to chemo brain.

For most patients, the symptoms improve six to 12 months after chemotherapy, but 10 to 20 percent may have long-term effects.

What to Do About Chemo Brain

If you notice symptoms of chemo brain, talk with your doctor, especially if your symptoms make it difficult to do your job or complete schoolwork. You may benefit from occupational therapy or additional support from your workplace or school.

To cope with chemo brain, The American Cancer Society suggests these strategies:OHBlog_ChemoBrain_Constantino1

  • Stay organized with a detailed daily planner, either on paper or on your smartphone.
  • Exercise your brain by taking a class, doing puzzles or learning a new language.
  • Get enough rest.
  • Eat one to two servings of green leafy vegetables, which researchers say can slow cognitive decline.
  • Keep track of memory issues so you can anticipate and prepare for them.
  • Tell friends and family what’s going on and enlist their help in remembering things.
  • Commit to regular physical activity—with your doctor’s approval. In addition to physical improvements, exercise can improve memory and thinking skills.
  • Avoid multitasking. Try to complete one task at a time.
  • Follow a daily routine to help reduce the stress of uncertainty.

If you think you have chemo brain, it’s not your imagination. By understanding chemo brain, you can develop skills to minimize the symptoms that cause so much frustration.

Are you interested in learning more about the Orlando Health Cancer Institute Integrative Medicine program?

The Integrative Medicine program is an international non-profit dedicated to providing support, education, and hope to people affected by cancer for over 30 years. Orlando Health believes that conventional western medicine is the best approach to combat cancer and other diseases, but there are complementary paths to aid healing by treating the whole person in a cohesive balance of mind, body, and spirit. As part of this initiative to treat the whole person, we are pleased to announce that we have become an official affiliate of the Integrative Medicine program.

Learn More

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