Managing Your Chemo Brain Symptoms

When you’re battling cancer there are a lot of things weighing on your mind. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed as you navigate a new reality or a new normal following treatment.

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Many patients experience memory lapses, trouble concentrating, difficulty multi-tasking, and feel as though it takes them longer to complete simple tasks. For many people, these are common manifestations of stress, fatigue, or hormone changes. But for others, the symptoms are attributable to the side effects of chemotherapy, commonly referred to as “Chemo Brain.”

What is Chemo Brain?
Health care providers and researchers most commonly refer to Chemo Brain as mild disruption in cognitive function related to cancer-therapy.

“Chemo Brain is usually mild to moderate,” says Jill Johnson, certified nurse practitioner at ProMedica Cancer Institute’s survivor center. “Patients might make simple mistakes, like putting milk in the cupboard and cereal in the refrigerator; experience forgetfulness, like an inability to remember the name of someone they were just introduced to; or an inability to multi-task.”

Johnson says that, for most people, the experience is short-lived; however some episodes have a greater impact on everyday life and can interrupt vocational function and ability. “These longer episodes improve over time,” explains Johnson, “But it can be very scary for some patients who feel they’ll never get past it.”

How do I deal with Chemo Brain?
Patients experiencing Chemo Brain may develop a feeling of isolation, but Johnson explains that the phenomenon is very common among survivors.  The American Cancer Society recommends many tactics to help deal with the day-to-day effects of chemo brain. Johnson emphasizes a few important steps to managing side effects of chemo on the brain.

  • Talk with your doctor. “Communication with your health care providers is important in any situation, but especially if you are experiencing challenges in your treatment,” says Johnson. Be thorough in sharing your medical history, including any vitamins, supplements or over the counter medications you are taking. Don’t hesitate to ask if you might benefit from seeing a specialist to help with the problem. Write down questions you may have about your treatment or notes about challenges you experience to discuss with your health care provider.
  • Talk with family and close friends. Let them know your challenges.  They may be able to help identify changes they notice in your behavior and how the problems are affecting you. Friends and family can also provide helpful suggestions for improving your memory function based on their interaction with you. “Any kind of support is helpful to get you back on track,” says Johnson. “Even for patients who live alone – a simple phone call from a friend every day at the same time to remind you of an important task, to take medications or ask how you’re doing can be very helpful.”
  • Exercise your mind and your body. “Anything that gets your mind to focus will help retrain the brain,” says Johnson. Try doing word or number puzzles, reading or taking an art class to keep your mind engaged. Regular physical activity is also important, not only for your body, but to improve mood and minimize depression.
  • Establish a routine. “Patients are realizing a new normal in life, so this isn’t a good time to alter routines,” says Johnson. Maintaining a set schedule can help you stay on top of your to-dos and stay on time for appointments. Keeping a day planner or electronic calendar is also useful for keeping track of appointments, important dates, contacts and lists that might be easily forgotten. Picking a designated place for commonly misplaced objects can help reduce the chance of losing important items, like keys.

“There are more and more survivors to share the challenges they have experienced on the cancer journey,” Johnson says. “While we know the symptoms, we’re still looking to confirm the cause of chemo brain and how to relieve it. Input from survivors will help researchers learn more about this.”

Have you or a loved one experienced chemo brain or other side-effects from cancer treatment? Let us know what worked for you in tackling these challenges by commenting below.

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