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Definition

What is chemo brain?

Chemotherapy can help you beat cancer, but side effects are almost certain. It’s common for you to have a cloudy mind, called “chemo brain,” during and after treatment. Maybe you have a hard time remembering names or can’t multitask as well as you used to.

As many as 3 out of 4 people with cancer say they’re not as mentally sharp. It’s often caused by your chemotherapy medicines, but it can also come from the cancer itself or other problems like infection, low blood counts, fatigue, sleep problems, or stress.

How common is chemo brain?

Chemo brain is quite common. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of chemo brain?

The common symptoms of chemo brain are:

  • Being unusually disorganized
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty finding the right word
  • Difficulty learning new skills
  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling of mental fogginess
  • Short attention span
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks
  • Trouble with verbal memory, such as remembering a conversation
  • Trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes chemo brain?

Beyond the chemo brain symptoms that start during and just after treatment, there are some cases where brain symptoms start and even get worse after treatment is over. Many cancer treatments, including certain kinds of chemo and radiation, can cause short-term, long-term, and delayed problems.

Studies suggest that there may be more than one cause of chemo brain, especially for the short-term symptoms. Some people with cancer have very real brain problems even though they haven’t had chemo. Still others notice problems when getting hormone treatments, such as those used to treat breast or prostate cancers. For some, problems start after surgery. Along with chemo, many different things can worsen brain function.

For instance, brain function problems could be caused or worsened by any one or any combination of these factors:

  • The cancer itself
  • Other drugs used as part of treatment, such as steroids, anti-nausea, or pain medicines
  • Surgery and the drugs used during surgery (anesthesia)
  • Low blood counts
  • Sleep problems
  • Infection
  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Hormone changes or hormone treatments
  • Other illnesses, such as diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Patient age
  • Depression
  • Stress, anxiety, worry, or other emotional pressure

Most of these cause short-term problems, and get better as the underlying problem is treated or goes away. A few, such as depression, can cause long-lasting brain problems unless the cause is treated.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for chemo brain?

There are many risk factors for chemo brain, such as:

  • Brain cancer
  • Chemotherapy given directly to the central nervous system
  • Chemotherapy combined with whole-brain radiation
  • Higher doses of chemotherapy or radiation
  • Radiation therapy to the brain
  • Younger age at time of cancer diagnosis and treatment
  • Increasing age

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is chemo brain diagnosed?

There’s no clear definition of chemo brain, so no tests exist to diagnose this condition. Cancer survivors who experience these symptoms often score in normal ranges on memory tests.

Your doctor may recommend blood tests, brain scans or other tests to rule out other causes of memory problems. But if no apparent cause can be found for your symptoms, your doctor may refer you to a specialist who can help you cope with memory changes.

How is chemo brain treated?

If chemo brain is disrupting your daily life, your doctor may suggest a counselor or psychologist. There are other things that can help too, including:

  • Some stimulants and antidepressants
  • Exercise — even 5 minutes a day
  • Plenty of sleep and rest
  • Exercising your brain with puzzles, playing an instrument, or learning a new hobby

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage chemo brain?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with chemo brain:

  • Control what you can about your working environment. If noise and commotion are contributing to your distraction, try to find a quiet corner where you can concentrate. Soft music may help drown out other noises.
  • Prepare yourself for success. Before tackling a complicated task that requires concentration, take steps to ensure that you will have the best chance for success. Eat so you won’t be distracted by hunger. Pick a time of day when you’ll be the most alert. Get a good night’s sleep. Have a plan so you know exactly what you’ll need to do in order to complete your task.
  • Stay organized. Use calendars or planners to keep on task. That way you won’t spend time wondering if you’re forgetting an appointment or an item on your to-do list. Write everything down in your planner. Make organization a priority at home and at work, too. Having an organized work space means you can spend more time on tasks that you need to accomplish.
  • Clear your mind of distractions. When distracting thoughts pop up, write them down in your planner. Recording your thoughts will help to quickly clear them and ensure that you remember them later.
  • Take frequent breaks. Divide your tasks into manageable portions and take a break each time you complete one part. Give yourself a short rest so that you’ll be able to continue later.
  • Exercise your brain. Try crossword puzzles or number games to exercise your brain. Take up a new hobby or master a new skill, such as learning to play a musical instrument or learning a language.
  • Exercise your body. Moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, can help you cope with stress, fatigue and depression. All can contribute to memory problems. If you haven’t been active lately, get the OK from your doctor first.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: September 19, 2017 | Last Modified: September 19, 2017

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