Cancer patients sometimes experience mental cloudiness during and even after their cancer treatment. While patients often refer to this feeling of forgetfulness as having a “chemo brain” moment, new studies confirm that the memory problems associated as chemo brain, which include memory, thinking and focus, are a very real, not imagined symptom, which can be a possible side effect from a patient’s chemotherapy treatment.

The symptoms of chemo brain can be very frustrating both for those who are going through cancer treatment, as well as for their loved ones, who are trying to provide support.

How Does Chemo Brain Happen?
Oncologists and other physicians have known for years that radiation can contribute to patients experiencing memory problems, but more recent information now suggests that chemotherapy is also linked to some of the cognitive problems patients experience. These sometimes vague yet distressing mental changes cancer patients notice generally last a short period of time, but they also may go on for years.

The good news is that there is now more information available to patients to verify that chemo brain symptoms are real. Unfortunately, more research is still needed to help patients cope with this symptom, as well as with preventing it altogether. How much these chemo brain symptoms are attributable to being a side effect of the patient’s chemotherapy treatment or the rigors of cancer treatment still remains to be identified.

Chemo Brain Symptoms

  • Memory Lapses – Difficulty Recalling

  • Trouble Concentrating or Finishing Tasks

  • Difficulty Remembering Details

  • Forgetting Common Words

  • Shortened Attention Span

  • Feeling Foggy

How Long Does Chemo Brain Last?
When the symptoms of chemo brain begin, how long these symptoms last and how much trouble or difficulty they cause may vary quite a bit. While the term “chemo brain” is not commonly accurate, it’s still what most people refer to in regards to addressing possible memory issues from cancer treatment.

What Causes Chemo Brain?
The causes of brain problems related to cancer and its treatment are still being studied. While there is currently no known way to prevent chemo brain, it does seem to occur more often with high doses of chemotherapy and is also more likely if the brain is also treated with radiation.

For the short term symptoms, studies suggest that there may be more than one possible cause for chemo brain. Some cancer patients experience chemo brain symptoms even without having had chemotherapy. Other patients notice symptoms when getting hormone treatments, such as estrogen blockers. For other patients, cognitive problems may begin after their surgery. Besides chemotherapy, there are many different elements associated with a patient’s cancer that can worsen brain function.

  • The Cancer

  • Other drugs associated with the cancer treatment such as steroids, anti-nausea or pain medications. Low blood counts

  • Sleeping problems

  • Fatigue

  • Depression

  • Hormone changes

  • Anxiety or stress

  • Infection

  • Patient age.

These may all contribute to short term memory problems associated with chemo brain symptoms. For some patients the treatment of their cancer may lead to trouble with their memory and thinking, but, again, these symptoms are usually not long lasting.

Coping with Chemo Brain
The symptoms associated with chemo brain are generally for a short term, usually diminishing shortly after the patient’s cancer treatments are complete. But sometimes the symptoms may linger longer. The first step in coping with chemo brain is to understand that the memory symptoms the patient may experience are not imagined, but valid. Once the experience of chemo brain is accepted there are some things the patient can do to help them manage their chemo brain symptoms.

  • Use day planners – keeping all the patient’s information in one place will help patients find the reminders they need, such as “to do” lists, appointments, phone numbers, important dates, notes, etc.

  • Give your brain a work out – stimulate your mind with word puzzles, taking a class or even trying a new language.

  • Get plenty of sleep and rest.

  • Eat more vegetables – studies confirm that eating more vegetables better maintain brain power as people age.

  • Set up and follow routines.

  • Take it easy on the multitasking – slow down and focus on one thing at a time.

  • Work out – it’s not only good for your body but it also helps improve your mood, increases alertness and decreases fatigue.

  • Ask for help when you need it.

  • eep track of your memory problems -jot down in your day planner when you notice problems.

Experiencing Symptoms? Don’t Keep it to Yourself
Unlike other chemotherapy side effects like hair loss, which is easy to see, many of those around you may not be aware of any the chemo brain symptoms you are experiencing, unless you tell them.

Tell your family, friends, co-workers and your health care team about any chemo brain symptoms you experience. Let others know that you are going through a side effect of your cancer treatment.

If you experience chemo brain symptoms during your cancer treatment, please tell your oncologist. They will want to check for any other conditions that may be causing or contributing to your symptoms, as well as review your treatment plan. If your symptoms are significantly interfering with your day-to-day life, your doctor may recommend that you see a specialists to conduct a more in-depth evaluation.

While there is now more awareness about chemo brain and the symptoms, we still need much more research and information to better understand it and hopefully prevent it. Thankfully most of the people who do witness this particular side-effect experience it for a short time.

Please visit our chemotherapy side effects page to learn more about other possible side effects during cancer treatment.