Often when we think about side effects of cancer treatment, we think about the body. But, what about the frustrating experience of not being able to organize your grocery list or forgetting your doctor’s name or feeling unable to find the right word in a sentence? “Chemo brain” is the term commonly used by people who have experienced this firsthand. The medical community has come to recognize these thinking and memory problems as side effects of chemotherapy and use the term, chemotherapy-associated cognitive impairment. Some of these symptoms may sound familiar:
- Memory lapse—especially details like names, places, common words
- Poor concentration, short attention span
- Difficulty multi-tasking
- Taking longer to accomplish tasks—less organized, slower thinking
Research is underway to learn more about the exact causes of chemo brain. Current theories suggest that some chemotherapy drugs are not only directly toxic to brain cells, but also cause damage by reducing blood flow to brain cells and by increasing the inflammatory response of the immune system. Additionally, some cancer treatment drugs can change hormone levels and alter neurotransmitter function (neurotransmitters are messengers between brain cells), which affects thinking and mood.
Although there is no established medication or treatment for chemo brain, there are many ways to cope with brain fog and minimize its impact on your life.
- Keep perspective: you are not crazy or alone. Frequently, these symptoms improve or resolve just like other side effects of treatment.
- Track your symptoms: keep a diary to find what makes symptoms worse. Where were you, were you hungry, stressed, tired, etc.?
- Exercise your brain: Sudoku, crosswords or a new hobby all keep your brain in shape.
- Exercise your body: a short brisk walk will increase blood flow to your brain, improve fatigue, stress and your mood—all will help you think more clearly.
- Get adequate sleep: brains don’t work well when they are tired. Chemotherapy or not.
- Eat nutritious foods: adequate protein, essential fatty acids and lots of vegetables provide basics your brain needs to function well. Help reduce your body’s inflammatory response by limiting inflammatory foods like alcohol and sugar.
- Manage your stress: like tired brains, stressed brains don’t work well. Chemotherapy or not.
- Improve normal elimination of chemotherapeutic drugs: good hydration and digestive function help your body clear out drugs once they’ve done their job.
- Put important information in one place: use a day planner or smartphone to keep track of appointments, medications, contact info and reminders.
- Follow a routine: keep things in the same place and try to maintain consistent times for appointments or regular activities.
- Create a peaceful environment: avoid a workspace full of distractions.
- Focus on one task at a time: avoid multi-tasking and take frequent breaks.
- Talk to yourself: auditory clues help you remember. Repeat information out loud as you write it.
- Ask for help: friends and family can help you remember appointments, keep organized or take a walk with you.
- Talk to your doctor about your general health and well-being: address issues that may impact your response to treatment.