Introduction to Chemo Brain
Some blood cancers and treatments can result in cognitive changes that affect thinking, learning, processing, or remembering information. These changes can affect many aspects of life such as the ability to work or even to do everyday tasks.
Most people who receive chemotherapy experience these effects to some degree. The effects are sometimes referred to as “chemo brain” or brain fog. Its exact cause isn’t always known. Although these cognitive changes are commonly called “chemo brain,” it is unlikely that chemotherapy is the only cause of these problems. Cognitive changes can happen suddenly, or slowly over time.
Some changes after cancer are very minor and will go away. Other cognitive changes may be more noticeable and may not be reversible. If you suspect chemo brain, talk to your doctor to develop a plan to manage your symptoms.
Cognitive changes after cancer treatment are sometimes referred to as “chemo brain” or brain fog. Its exact cause isn’t always known.
Causes of Chemo Brain
Cognitive changes can occur at any point during your experience with cancer. These changes may also happen after completing cancer treatment or after taking certain medications.
The causes of cognitive problems related to cancer and its treatment are still being studied, and at this time there’s no known way to prevent them.
Some possible causes of chemo brain may include:
- High dose chemotherapy and/or the use of immunotherapy
- Radiation treatment to the head and neck
- Hormone therapy and other medications
- Cancer involving the brain as a result of the tumor or the treatment of
- Other conditions or symptoms related to cancer or cancer treatments
- Stress, anxiety, or depression
- Vitamin deficiencies
Symptoms and Signs of Chemo Brain
The severity of the symptoms of chemo brain often depends on your age, stress level, history of depression or anxiety, coping abilities, and access to emotional and psychological resources. Some signs are acute and occur suddenly, while others may come about slowly over time.
Acute onset cognitive changes occur suddenly. This can happen during treatment with certain medications and chemotherapy agents and may be reversible.
Symptoms of some acute changes include:
- Fluctuating alertness and orientation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Reduced level of consciousness
- Problems with comprehension or understanding
- Unusual sleep patterns
- Memory loss
- Quiet, inactive behaviour, including sedation
Gradual onset of cognitive changes, or chronic changes, come about slowly over time and may be long-lasting. Symptoms might not appear until active treatment for cancer is finished.
- Poor memory
- Difficulty with abstract thinking and/or multi-tasking
- Poor judgment and poor decision making
- Changes in personality
- Difficulty with problem-solving and following directions
- Difficulty setting priorities and completing tasks
Managing Chemo Brain
Help manage chemo brain by telling your family, friends, and health care team about it. Let them know what you are going through. You may feel relieved once you tell people about the problems you sometimes have with your memory or thinking.
Tell your doctor
If chemo brain is leading to issues at work or at home, talk with your doctor to try and pinpoint causes and what you can do to improve your symptoms. This is especially important for people with chemo brain that lasts more than a year and keeps causing trouble in their daily lives.
Treatments for Chemo Brain
Whether cognitive changes will improve or be permanent depends on their cause. Acute cognitive changes that occur because of certain medicines often improve when you stop taking the medicine. Chronic changes are often not reversible but certain steps can be taken to help mitigate their effect on you.
Management of long-term cognitive problems may include:
- Cognitive rehabilitation and training, to help improve cognitive skills and find ways to cope with cognitive problems
- Occupational therapy and vocational rehabilitation, to help with the activities of daily living and job-related skills
- Medications, including stimulants, cognition-enhancing drugs commonly used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, antidepressants, and opiate antagonists
Adjusting to Life With Chemo Brain
Plan and Organize
- Keep a checklist of daily reminders and to-dos.
- Use a pen and paper, calendar or your smartphone to jot down reminders and keep track of important dates.
- Place reminders around the house and workplace to jog your memory of important tasks.
- Prepare for the next day by setting out the things you will need the night before.
- Eliminate clutter and keep popular items, such as your phone, in a designated place.
- Store important information and emergency contacts in a notebook or smartphone to have on you at all times.
- Follow routines and don’t try to multitask. Focusing on one thing at a time and keeping a schedule will help you feel more in control.
Mind and Body
- Use tricks such as rhyming or singing to help you remember things.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Make physical activity a part of your daily routine. Yoga, swimming, and walking can all help increase mental alertness.
- Eat veggies. Studies have shown that eating more vegetables is linked to keeping brain power as people age.
- Exercise your brain with crosswords or puzzles, painting, playing a musical instrument, or learning a new hobby.
- Ask for help when you need it. Friends and loved ones can help with daily tasks.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions at your doctors’ appointments. Ask a friend or family member to go with you so he or she can take notes and review them with you after the visit.
- Talk with your employer if you are having problems at work. Discuss potential ways your employer could support you, such as modifying your workload and deadlines.
- Join a support group. Remember you are not alone! Share your experience with others who have been through it too.
For more information, don’t hesitate to contact us:
1-833-222-4884 • email@example.com • YourLifeAfterCancer.ca