How to Lift Your Cancer Brain Fog

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 15, 2024
4 min read

Many people with cancer have problems with memory, attention, and thinking. It can start during treatment or after it’s over. You might have heard it called “chemo brain,” but other cancer treatments besides chemotherapy can cause this brain fog, too. It can also happen because of the disease itself.

When you have it, you may find it hard to work, go to school, or enjoy social events.

For many people, brain fog lasts a short time. Others may have it for years. Either way, a few different strategies can help you get a handle on your symptoms.

If you have brain fog, you’ll notice that:

  • You find it hard to learn new things.
  • You’re easily distracted.
  • You feel “spacey.”
  • It takes you longer than normal to complete tasks.
  • You can’t get organized.
  • You struggle to find the right words when you speak.
  • You can’t keep track of names, dates, or your schedule.
  • You have trouble remembering things.

Although your cancer is partly to blame for how you feel, there may be other reasons, such as:

Different strategies can help you think more clearly, such as:

Lifestyle changes

  • Eat healthy foods. They make you stronger and give you energy. If you’ve lost your appetite, try eating small meals every few hours instead of three large ones per day. Eat foods high in protein, like chicken and eggs, and healthy carbohydrates, like oatmeal and sweet potatoes. Nutrient-rich vegetables will also help protect your brain.
  • Stop harmful habits. Inflammation may play a part in brain fog. You can lower it by staying away from toxins like alcohol and tobacco.
  • Get plenty of rest. When you get enough sleep, your brain will find it easier to learn, focus, and remember things. Try to get 6-8 hours each night.
  • Break a sweat. Regular aerobic exercise like walking, dancing, or biking will make you better able to focus and boost your mood, too.
  • Give your brain a workout. Do crosswords, work on a puzzle, read a book, or play online brain games. Each time you challenge your thinking, you can sharpen your focus.
  • Keep stress in check. Worry, anxiety, and stress can add to your brain fog. Learn ways to relax, whether it’s with meditation, yoga, or mindfulness techniques that teach you to stay in the moment.
  • Give yourself a break. Divide big tasks into “bite-sized” pieces. Reward yourself with a short break each time you finish one.
  • Try not to multitask. Your brain will have an easier time if you start and finish one project before going on to the next.

Memory aids

  • Find ways to jog your memory. When you need to remember something, repeat it out loud. You can also keep a to-do list. Wear a watch with an alarm or set a timer on your phone to remind you.
  • Know your triggers. Is your memory bad when you’re hungry? Do you find it harder to focus in a noisy room? Learn what makes your brain fog worse so you can try to avoid it.
  • Use visual clues. Take pictures of things you need to remember, such as where you parked your car. Sticky notes and calendars can also help.

Help from experts

  • Manage other health issues. Anxiety, stress, and depression can make your brain fog worse. So can some physical conditions, such as sleep apnea or a thyroid that doesn’t work the way it should. Talk to your doctor about getting any health conditions you have under control.
  • Learn skills to get through your day. An occupational therapist can teach you ways to manage day-to-day tasks at work or home. You’ll learn strategies to help your memory, get organized, and manage your time.
  • Ask your doctor about medicines. There is no pill to get rid of brain fog, but in some cases, a prescription stimulant -- such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or modafinil (Provigil) -- can improve focus and boost your energy level.
  • Think about cognitive rehab. Mental exercises that test your memory and brain function can help your brain work better. Some people see results after a few weeks. If you finished your cancer treatment a year ago or longer and still feel foggy, ask your doctor to refer you to a neuropsychologist.