What is chemo brain and how long does it last?

Cancer patients going through chemotherapy often experience difficulty with memory and focus. It’s a phenomenon common enough that it has earned a nickname: chemo brain.

Although chemo brain fog is common, it shouldn’t be ignored, according to Erin Mclaughlin, an oncology nurse navigator at OSF HealthCare. You should definitely let your oncologist know if you are experiencing any chemo brain symptoms.

“It’s not just one issue, it’s an umbrella of things that can go wrong,” Erin said. “It needs to be addressed because it impacts your quality of life. Your body is very delicately balanced, so we have to know about everything.”

Chemo brain causes

Chemo brain got its name because it’s often believed to be caused by chemotherapy, but that’s only one of the possible causes for the brain fog a patient experiences.

“Chemo itself is toxic poison we use to kill cancer,” Erin said. “Cancer is strong and tricky, so we have to be strong and tricky to fight it.”

Radiation therapy delivered to the head or neck area may also cause some neurological issues. And some issues can be caused by the cancer itself, especially a brain tumor.

Some cancers that are not in the brain can impact your ability to think, too, because they give off chemicals that can cause issues with focus and memory.

“Chemo brain is an enigma because every patient is going to be different,” Erin said. “A lot of it comes from just being overwhelmed with treatment.”

Chemo brain treatment

When you are going through chemotherapy, good hydration can provide some relief from chemo brain. Try to drink 2-3 quarts of fluid the day of treatment and for a few days after to help flush the harmful chemicals out of your system.

“We want chemo in, then we want it out as soon as done with its job,” Erin said.

Stress reduction can help, too. People with cancer deal with a lot of medical visits, so their brains are dealing with a lot of information and stress.

Take action against chemo brain

Download these tips for keeping sharp

It can really help your mental health to find a nice place to go that is all about healing and stress reduction – not treatment.

Some people need one-on-one therapy. Some people take classes that focus on stretching, balancing and breathing. Mindfulness classes, cooking classes, painting classes and support groups are all good options.

Brain games, like crossword puzzles and Sudoku, can serve as chemo brain exercises. They help your brain focus and stay sharp.

Also, exercise or any physical activity is good for your body and mind, as is proper sleep. Your mind and body both require healthy rest.

You can even try taking fish oil with DHA, which increases the speed of brain functions, though you need to get it cleared by a physician first.

There are many options for stress reduction and cognitive health, so find what works for you.

Tip for living with chemo brain

While you have options for treating chemo brain, you may find that you can’t avoid its symptoms entirely. Here are some tips to help you limit chemo brain’s impact on your daily life.

  • Avoid multitasking.
  • Purchase a calendar, notepad or sticky notes to write down appointments and other reminders for yourself.
  • Leave your cellphone in a place you can find it.
  • Make shopping lists so you get everything you came for when you go to the store.
  • Bring a friend or family to appointments to help you remember the information and instructions you receive.
  • Get copies of tests and lab work to make sure you have a record of everything. It can help you remember everything that’s been done, and it enables you to participate in your own care more effectively.
  • Use timers for cooking, so you don’t forget anything for too long in the oven or on the stove.
  • Repeat phrases to yourself to help remember them – especially phrases that are important or new to you.

How long does chemo brain last?

Chemo brain can impact your memory, concentration and ability to problem solve for several months after chemotherapy has ended – even up to a year. The more you can do to keep your body and mind healthy and active, the better the likelihood is that you can shed the symptoms sooner and avoid these issues turning into long-term effects.

About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Cancer