What Is Chemo Brain, and How Can I Manage It?

If you feel a little foggy when you get chemotherapy, it's not your imagination. Lots of folks notice they're more forgetful, or have trouble concentrating, while they get treatment. Doctors call it chemo brain, and if it happens to you, there are steps you can take to keep it under control.

What Are the Symptoms?

Chemo brain can start during or after your treatment for cancer. The symptoms may disappear quickly after your chemotherapy ends, or they may linger for months.

You may notice things like these happening to you:

  • Forget things that you usually remember, like names, dates, and common words
  • Feel "spaced out" or can't concentrate
  • Find it hard to do more than one thing at a time
  • Take longer than usual to do things, or feel like you're slow and disorganized
  • Misplace objects

 

What Causes It?

Doctors don't fully understand why you get chemo brain. Some studies show that chemotherapy slows the growth of cells in areas of the brain that handle learning and memory. But researchers think other things may also contribute to your foggy thinking, including:

  • Your cancer itself
  • Drugs you took during surgery or to manage side effects
  • Sleep problems and overall fatigue
  • You don't get the right nutrition
  • Stress, anxiety, worry, or depression

 

How to Manage Chemo Brain

You don't have to let chemo brain stop you from having a productive day. Learn some simple techniques that can sharpen your mind and put you back on top of your game.

Make sure you get regular physical activity. Exercise improves your mood and makes you feel more alert and less tired.

Also exercise your brain. It's easy to do. Take a class, do puzzles, or learn a new skill.

To help you stay organized, use a daily planner or smartphone app. That way, you can keep track of appointments, schedules, to-do lists, dates, websites, phone numbers, and addresses.

Another trick: If you think you might forget something, try a memory game. Think of a word that rhymes with a name you need to remember, or a silly visual image relating to a fact.

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If you work in an office, look for ways to cut down distractions, even if you have move to a different cubicle. And whether you have a job or stay at home, set up and follow daily and weekly routines. Give yourself extra time to get things done.

To avoid misplacing things, place items like your car keys and cellphone in the same place every time you set them down.

Some people find that taking stimulants like methylphenidate (Quillivant ER, Quillichew ER, Ritalin), a combination of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine (Adderall, Adderall XR), or modafinil/armodafinil (Provigil/Nuvigil) can help their fatigue, attention, and concentration during cancer treatment. However, these medications often have appetite suppression or weight loss as a common side effect, which may be of concern for patients undergoing chemotherapy. Talk to your doctor about whether one of these drugs might work for you.

Whatever techniques you use, keep your family and friends in the loop. They can be a big source of help and support.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on February 22, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: "Chemobrain"

Mayo Clinic: "Chemo brain."

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: "Tips for Managing Chemobrain."

American Cancer Society: "Chemo Brain."

MD Anderson Cancer Center: "Chemobrain."

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