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What to Know About Chemobrain

What to Know About Chemobrain

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21


Forgetfulness. Trouble focusing. Cluttered thoughts. If you’re dealing with cognitive issues like these during cancer treatment, you’re not alone. Up to 75% of cancer patients experience “chemobrain” while treatment is underway, with a third of them experiencing symptoms afterwards.
But what exactly is chemobrain? Let’s explore what we know about this challenging issue, and review some handy tips to help you manage it.

Chemobrain 101: The basics

What is chemobrain?

Chemobrain is a slew of cognitive problems that arise during and after cancer treatment. That can include trouble recalling faces or names, lapses in short-term memory, difficulty expressing yourself or finding the right words, struggling to plan ahead or organize your thoughts, difficulty learning new things, and so on. 
Chemobrain is also sometimes called chemofog or chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment. Unfortunately, all of these names are a bit misleading! While chemobrain can be caused by chemotherapy, it can also be caused by hormone therapy, surgery, radiation therapy, and other medical procedures. In other words, it’s better to think of chemobrain as “cancer treatment brain.”

What causes chemobrain?

We don’t yet know the root causes of chemobrain. It’s a very complex problem, and researchers are still studying the basic mechanisms behind it. 
Most likely, it’s a result of many interacting factors. After all, cancer treatment (and cancer itself) affects your whole body in major ways. Stress, fatigue, fluctuations in your hormonal balance and immune system, side effects of pain medication, anxiety, depression, etc. can all affect the way your mind works.
For most people, chemobrain fades away within 9-12 months after completing chemotherapy. A small minority of people still experience symptoms many years later.

How is chemobrain treated?

Unfortunately, there’s no real treatment for chemobrain. The good news is that healthcare providers are paying ever-more attention to this issue and getting better at treating its symptoms. 
One major resource for managing symptoms is cognitive rehabilitation—a sort of personal training program for your brain. It involves working with a professional (typically a neuropsychologist) who uses mental exercises and techniques to help you build on your cognitive strengths and improve your daily life. Your healthcare team may also prescribe a stimulant (e.g. Ritalin or Adderall), a wakeful-promoting drug like modafinil, or a memory aid like donepezil.

Is chemobrain a sign of dementia?

No. Chemobrain is not dementia, and there’s no evidence that it leads to dementia. They’re completely different conditions. 
And while chemobrain and dementia may look similar to someone without a medical background, rest assured that your healthcare team can easily tell the difference. Just track your symptoms carefully and stay in good communication with your doctor.

What are the risk factors for chemobrain?

According to the American Cancer Society, many different variables can make it more likely that you experience chemobrain symptoms. These include:
  • Using medications like steroids, anti-nausea or pain treatment drugs, in addition to your cancer-treatment medications
  • Having other health conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Being weak or frail
  • Bacterial infections
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Using alcohol or other psychotropic drugs
  • Being postmenopausal
Of course, only some of these variables are under your control. You’ll want to work closely with your healthcare team to identify and lower these risk factors.

Tips to Manage Chemobrain

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Like we said above, there’s no magic bullet for treating chemobrain. Fortunately, there are still many things you can do to control your symptoms and boost your day-to-day quality of life. Here are our 7 favorite tips:

1. Track your symptoms

The more you know about your symptoms, the better. Try to jot down where and when you have the most trouble (you can use your Jasper tracker for this). Are you hungry or tired? Is it morning or night? What’s going on around you? Details like these can help you see important patterns so you can avoid circumstances that are more difficult for you.

2. Tell your community

It’s important that people around you understand your needs so they can support you! Let friends, family, and coworkers know how chemobrain is affecting you and how they can help. For many people, being direct and transparent about cognitive issues can help get past the embarrassment of trying to hide them.

3. Exercise your body

Moderate exercise is proven to help fight depression, fatigue, and stress - all of which may be related to (or working in tandem with) your chemobrain. But don’t try to push yourself too hard! Work with your care team to find a light fitness activity that suits you, such as yoga, swimming, or walking.

4. Exercise your mind

The Mayo Clinic recommends learning games and activities that help you flex your mental muscles - think crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and logic games. There are also sites like Lumosity and BrainHQ that can help with “brain training.”

5. Get enough sleep

Sleep is absolutely key to brain health. And while cancer treatment can cause insomnia, certain preventive steps can still help you catch more Zs every night. Practice good sleep hygiene by setting a nightly routine, bedding down at the same time every night, avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening, avoiding heavy meals close to bedtime, shutting down screens that emit “blue light” 30-60 minutes before bed, and only using your bed for sleep (no TV or cell phones).

6. Eat your veggies

According to the American Cancer Society, getting enough vegetables in your daily diet can help protect your brain power as you age. There’s no data yet showing that a plant-heavy diet fights chemobrain specifically, but it certainly can’t hurt!

7. Take notes

Writing everything down can feel strange, especially if you’ve always been a mental notetaker. But once you get into the habit, written notes can be a lifesaver. We’ve set up Jasper to make planning and scheduling your daily life easy—whether you’re tracking symptoms, appointments, paperwork, or other daily tasks.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at support@jasperhealth.com.