What you can do about ‘chemo brain’

Senior woman comforts her husband who seems confused

If you’ve had cancer, even after you’ve finished treatment, you may notice your thinking isn’t as clear.

You might often struggle to recall where you put your keys or phone, or even conversations you had. Remembering the names of neighbors, co-workers, even cousins could be tough. You might forget to pay bills on time or take your medications, or you get overwhelmed making a recipe or following a set of instructions.

“Chemo brain” is very common. It’s likely a side effect of chemotherapy treatment for cancer. And you could experience the same mental difficulties long after you’ve finished chemotherapy. Chemo brain can happen at any point. I’ve had patients who experienced chemo brain before, during or after treatment. I’ve also had patients who have never had chemotherapy and experience similar symptoms.

People are relieved to know they’re not alone in feeling as if their thinking isn’t quite the same after cancer.

Common symptoms of chemo brain

My patients report having trouble with:

  • multi-tasking
  • remembering details — dates, times, names
  • focusing enough to carry out a task or carry on a conversation
  • losing track of items
  • reacting slower
  • finding the right word for what you want to say or write
  • completing tasks, such as cooking a meal or cleaning your house
  • planning and organizing a family event or even just managing the weekend

Helping chemo brain

I help patients improve their thinking and memory skills by:

  • giving them strategies to compensate
  • playing “brain games” with them to sharpen their thinking

Methods to compensate for chemo brain include:

  • organizing your day with an electronic or paper calendar
  • setting daily high-, medium- and low-priority goals
  • putting bill reminders on a calendar
  • helping manage medications — how much and when to take them
  • using apps to help maintain and organize a lot of information

For some of my clients, the challenge is returning to a consistent daily routine including remembering to do things to take care of themselves.

For others, it can be hard to return to their jobs and family duties while handling all the responsibilities they did before cancer. Sometimes people returning to work need to learn strategies to organize their day or remember names and project details.

“Brain games” to ease chemo brain:

  • card games such as Blink or euchre
  • sudoku
  • puzzles

If you have chemo brain, I suggest that you play one of those or similar games at least 15 to 20 minutes a day instead of watching television or scrolling on your phone. Keeping your mind active is key.

What contributes to chemo brain:

While it’s uncertain what causes chemo brain, it’s clear what makes chemo brain worse:

  • stress
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • inadequate sleep
  • not getting proper nutrition
  • not drinking enough water

How long does chemo brain last?

It’s different for each person. Some people have it for months; others for years. But there are many techniques to help improve the symptoms of chemo brain.

Can chemo brain go away?

While there is no way to ensure that your thinking will return to where it was before cancer, recovery is certainly possible. Occupational therapy aims to help your thinking as well as provide you with strategies for compensating when thinking isn't quite back to normal.

If you have chemo brain, know that you are not alone and there’s a lot you can do to help yourself.

Your ability to think clearly, your mood, and your physical health are connected. If you can’t remember or function like you used to, you might feel distressed. And feeling that distress can, in turn, further limit your ability to think, plan, organize and remember. That mental fog can keep you from carrying out typical daily tasks or socializing with friends or family.

So, it’s important to show yourself some grace and be patient with yourself. Make sure you participate in leisure activities you enjoy, exercise regularly, and practice mindfulness. All will help your mood, physical wellbeing and your thinking.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation programs

At The James, there is no routine cancer. Our experts develop and deliver the most advanced targeted treatments leading to better outcome and more hope.

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