What to Know About Chemo Brain

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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 “chemo brain” while treatment is underway, with a third of them experiencing symptoms afterward.

But what exactly is chemo brain? Let’s explore what we know about this challenging issue, and review some handy tips to help you manage it.

Chemo brain 101: The basics

What is chemo brain?

Chemo brain 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. 

Chemo brain is also sometimes called chemo fog or chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment. Unfortunately, all of these names are a bit misleading! While chemo brain 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 chemo brain as “cancer treatment brain.”

What causes chemo brain?

We don’t yet know the root causes of chemo brain. 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 brain functions

For most people, chemo brain fades away within 9-12 months after completing chemotherapy. A small minority of people still experience symptoms many years later.

How is chemo brain treated?

Unfortunately, there’s no real treatment for chemo brain. 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 chemo brain a sign of dementia?

No. Chemo brain is not dementia, and there’s no evidence that it leads to dementia. They’re completely different conditions. 

And while chemo brain 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 chemo brain?

According to the American Cancer Society, many different variables can make it more likely that you experience chemo brain 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 chemo brain

Like we said above, there’s no magic bullet for treating chemo brain. Fortunately, there are still many things you can do to control your symptoms and limit the effects of chemo brain on your daily life. Here are our seven 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 or use our symptom-tracker. 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 chemo brain 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 chemo brain. But don’t try to push yourself too hard! Work with your healthcare 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 using your bed only 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 chemo brain specifically, but it certainly can’t hurt! Talk with your healthcare team about safe and easy ways to add more vegetables into your diet.

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’re here 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 [email protected].