As a cancer survivor myself, I’ve frequently heard my fellow cancer survivor friends dismiss bouts of forgetfulness or simple mistakes as “chemo brain.” We always chuckle at this joke. Humor can be a powerful healing tool, but cognitive issues are a real side effect of cancer treatment that can be frustrating and scary for the cancer survivors who experience them. As many as 75% of cancer survivors experience cognitive issues at some point during treatment.
So, what is chemo brain? Chemo brain is what many cancer survivors call the cognitive issues that can be a side effect of cancer treatment. These issues can include memory loss, confusion, forgetfulness, and loss of concentration. Even though these side effects are commonly referred to as “chemo” brain, they can also be caused by other types of treatment or even by the stress and anxiety brought on by a cancer diagnosis.
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.
Cognitive issues can be difficult to treat, but there are things you can do to help manage them.
- Write it down.
- Make to-do lists to keep yourself on task.
- Use a planner to keep up with treatment times and doctor’s appointments.
- Place sticky notes in places you might need an occasional reminder, such as one by the front door keys, cellphone, wallet.
- Use a timer on your phone for medications.
- Exercise your brain.
- Play SODOKU or complete crossword puzzles.
- Read a little every day, even if it’s just a magazine or newspaper.
- Color new coloring books for adults are a fun trend! These books contain beautiful and detailed images to give your brain and creativity a workout.
- Download apps on your phone or tablet like QuizUp or 1278.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Avoid other substances that alter cognition as well.
- Throw away or donate all the things in your house that you don’t need.
- Use labels or color coded boxes for storage.
- Convert paper files to electronic files.
- Sleep well.
- Make sure your bedding is comfortable for you.
- Use the bathroom right before you go to bed.
- Do not watch TV or browse the web at least an hour before bed.
- Take a warm bath before bed to relax.
- Talk to your healthcare team.
- Anemia, shortness of red blood cells, can cause cognitive issues. Ask your healthcare team to check your red blood cell counts if they are not doing so already.