What is chemo brain?
Chemo brain is a problem with thinking and memory that can happen during and especially after chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Thinking and memory problems are called cognitive problems.
Chemo brain can make it hard for you to think, concentrate, and do tasks. You may have trouble remembering things. You may feel like your brain isn't working right. It can be frightening to have this happen, especially during an already stressful time.
These problems can be mild. But they can be so serious that people have a hard time working or doing their daily activities.
Cognitive problems may be caused by chemotherapy medicines used to treat cancer. They could occur because of the cancer itself and maybe because of other medicines used to treat cancer. The anxiety and stress of having cancer also may make it harder to think and remember.
Chemo brain may go away when treatment ends. But it can last for some people for months or years after treatment.
It's important to know that this is a real problem. You're not imagining it. Research is ongoing to learn more about how chemo brain occurs and how to prevent and treat it.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms vary depending on the person. But you may:
- Forget events, names, or other things.
- Have trouble thinking of certain words when you talk.
- Have trouble learning new things.
- Take longer to do routine tasks.
- Have trouble concentrating or feel like your mind is in a fog.
If the problem is mild, you may be the only one who notices any change in your behavior.
How is chemo brain diagnosed?
Your doctor will listen to your symptoms and examine you. He or she may ask questions about when you notice problems with your thinking and memory.
Your doctor will look for other causes of your thinking problems. For example, medicines to treat pain or—for women with certain cancers—medicines that block estrogen can cause foggy thinking. Dehydration, stress, depression, and trouble sleeping also can affect thinking and memory.
If your symptoms are very bad, your doctor may want you to have tests to see if something else may be causing cognitive problems.
How is it treated?
If you are still having chemotherapy, your doctor may try a different type of chemo to see if that stops your cognitive problems or causes fewer problems. Studies are being done to see which cancer medicines might be less likely to cause these problems.
If you still have chemo brain a year after cancer treatment ends, your doctor may suggest that you see a neuropsychologist. These experts help people who have cognitive problems.
What can you do to cope?
Take care of yourself
- Try to relax to reduce your stress. Meditate, or do yoga or another relaxing activity.
- Try to be patient with yourself. The problem may go away with time.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Be as physically active as you can. But check with your doctor to make sure that you don't do too much too soon.
- Keep your brain active by reading and doing puzzles, games, or crosswords.
Use memory aids
- Use sticky notes and calendars to help you remember events and tasks. Some people carry a notebook everywhere to write down important dates, to-do lists, and names of people.
- Try to have a routine for daily tasks so you get used to doing the same things in the same order every day.
- Bring a family member or friend to doctor visits. Or use your phone or another device to record your talk with your doctor. This will help you know what was said if you forget some of the conversation.
- Keep a diary or journal. Write down when your mind feels the most clear and when you have trouble. Note how much sleep you had, if you were stressed, or other things that happened. These notes may help your doctor suggest more things to help you.
- Tell your family and close friends about the problem so they know what's going on if you forget words or seem foggy. Tell them what, if anything, they can do to help you.
- See an oncology social worker if you are having trouble coping with memory problems.
- Think about joining a support group for people in cancer treatment. They may have the same problems. You can share coping ideas.
Other Works Consulted
- American Cancer Society (2013). Chemo brain. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/physicalsideeffects/chemotherapyeffects/chemo-brain. Accessed July 26, 2013.
- National Cancer Institute (2013). Managing chemotherapy side effects: Memory changes. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemo-side-effects/memory.pdf. Accessed July 26, 2013.
Current as of: August 21, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Catherine D. Serio PhD - Behavioral Health
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Jimmy Ruiz MD - Hematology, Oncology