Many cancer survivors report issues during and after cancer treatment including:
- memory loss
- loss of concentration
These side effects result from changes in the cognitive (thinking) processes of the brain. Even though these side effects are commonly referred to as “chemo brain,” factors other than chemotherapy can lead to cognitive side effects such as:
- brain cancer or brain metastasis
- brain surgery
- radiation to the brain
- stress and anxiety
Cognitive side effects can be short term or long term. This depends on the cause of the side effects, the age of the survivor, and the overall health of the survivor. If the cause is medication, once the medication is stopped, cognitive issues should improve. If surgery or radiation damages the brain or nervous system, the side effects may not improve over time.
Delirium is a severe cognitive issue indicated by loss of awareness and memory, drastic changes in behavior and judgment, and lack of muscle control. Delirium can be dangerous if the person is left alone. Delirium is most likely to occur in advanced cancer patients or near end of life.
Cognitive issues present many challenges. Because the direct cause of cognitive issues can be unclear, they are difficult to treat. Healthcare professionals are still researching cognitive issues as they relate to cancer and cancer treatment.
Changes in memory and brain function can be distressing, but many survivors share the same experience. There are some things you can do to manage cognitive side effects.
- Write to-do lists.
- Keep a detailed calendar of appointments and other important dates.
- Leave notes around the house to remind yourself to do things.
- Track your medications and use a weekly pill box.
- Lay out everything you need for the day the night before.
- Use your phone to set reminders.
- De-clutter your home and your workspace.
- Make sure everything has a place.
- Put keys in bowl by the door every day.
- Leave your cell phone on your nightstand.
- Use labels for storage areas and boxes.
- Avoid multitasking; focus on one task at a time.
- Put your phone and other unnecessary electronic devices away when working.
Exercise Your Brain
- Do “brain exercises” by taking free online quizzes or playing along with game shows.
- Try Sudoku or crossword puzzles.
- Learn a new hobby such as painting or writing.
Exercise Your Body
- Exercise is not only good for your body. It can make you feel better mentally, too. Exercising releases mood-boosting endorphins.
- Exercise also combats fatigue, which can contribute to cognitive issues.
- Try going for a daily walk or taking an exercise class.
- Ask your healthcare team before beginning any exercise program.
- Choose foods that promote healthy brain functioning such as fish (omega-3 fatty acids), dark leafy greens, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
- Avoid alcohol and other substances that alter cognition.
Get Plenty of Rest
- Being tired can make you less focused.
- Fatigue and insomnia are common side effects of cancer treatment. Visit the following resources to learn tips for managing fatigue and insomnia:
Check Red Blood Cell Counts
- Anemia is a condition that occurs when the body does not have an adequate amount of red blood cells.
- Anemia can cause cognitive issues.
- Ask your healthcare team to check your red blood cell counts if they are not doing so already.
- Read Anemia During Cancer Treatment to learn more about managing anemia with nutrition.
- Anxiety and stress can cause or worsen cognitive issues.
- Try to relax in a way that works for you. Consider trying:
- Deep breathing
- Taking a warm bath
- Your doctor may be able to prescribe medication to help with anxiety and depression.
- To learn more about support groups, peer partnering programs, and other forms of support, visit Emotional Support Programs.
Ask for Help
- Be honest with your friends and family about your “chemo brain.”
- If you explain what you are going through, they can be more understanding.
- They can also help you manage your side effects by sending you friendly reminders or helping you organize your space.
- As always, talk to your healthcare team about your side effects and ways to manage them.