When the topic of ‘chemo brain’ – sometimes called ‘chemo brain fog’ or simply ‘chemo fog’ - pops up on our Community Forum, it always strikes a chord. So many of our members have either experienced chemo brain themselves or have a loved one who is trying to cope with it. But what exactly is chemo brain? Do we know what causes it? And is there anything we can do to help it?
This post sorts out the fact from fiction – and gives you a checklist for tackling chemo brain...
What is chemo brain?
Chemo brain simply means changes in our concentration, memory and thinking ability during or after cancer and cancer treatment. Although you might think, from its name, that it’s caused by chemotherapy, chemo brain can affect anyone who as been diagnosed with and treated for cancer, whether or not they have had chemotherapy. Doctors sometimes call these changes in the way our brains work as cancer-related cognitive changes or CRCC.
What are the symptoms of chemo brain?
Chemo brain symptoms can vary in intensity and duration and not everyone who has chemo brain will have the same symptoms, to the same degree. The most common symptoms are:
- extremely tired most or all the time
- mentally foggy
Finding it hard to:
- choose the right word or finish a sentence
- learn new things
- remember familiar things, like names and important dates
Struggling to recall:
- verbal things such as a conversation
- visual things, like a picture or a list
Taking longer to:
- do things
- process information.
Of course, these are also symptoms that can be associated with conditions like depression or even dementia, which explains why chemo brain or CRCC is often missed or misdiagnosed.
What causes chemo brain?
At the moment, we don’t know. What we do know is that it can affect anyone with a cancer diagnosis, irrespective of their treatment: hormonal therapy, radiotherapy and surgery can also trigger chemo brain, not just chemotherapy. Other significant triggers can be treatment specifically to the brain, for example to treat a brain tumour, and high doses of certain types of treatment.
Being diagnosed with cancer shifts us on to a roller coaster of emotions, such as anger, anxiety, and depression, and these can make us more vulnerable to chemo brain.
The side effects of treatment are also thought to make some cancer patients more vulnerable to chemo brain, as they can include or lead to anaemia, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, menopause, or not eating well.
And, finally, other non-cancer drugs, such as painkillers, can put you more at risk of developing chemo brain.
‘I kept busy during chemo and radiation. Played a lot of bridge and even won prizes…but doing everyday things my brain seemed to be fried!’ Community Forum member
How long does chemo brain last?
Some people find that their symptoms are mild and, thankfully, short-lived. Other people find that they’re grappling with one or more of the following symptoms throughout their treatment and for some time after treatment finishes. But, for some people, chemo brain can become a permanent legacy of cancer, while other cancer patients never experience it at all.
There are many other factors that could affect whether or not you develop chemo brain and the degree to which it might affect you; for example, the type and stage of cancer you have been diagnosed with, your age, your general health and fitness levels before diagnosis, and any other medical conditions you may already have.
Is there a cure for chemo brain?
Research is under way into the cause or causes of chemo brain but we don’t yet know the exact cause, so there is no specific medical cure at present. However, we do know that there are things that you can do that can help you deal with the symptoms and make you feel more like yourself.
What should you do if you have chemo brain symptoms?
Write a list of all your symptoms and make an appointment to see your specialist cancer nurse or GP as soon as possible, so that you can discuss it with them. They can help with information and advice and tell you what sort of support might be suitable for you – and what’s available in your area.
Ask your nurse or GP if you can record the conversation – so that you don’t forget any important points that come up or anything that they recommend.
What can help deal with chemo brain symptoms?
There’s much to be said in keeping your daily life as simple as possible if you are trying to cope with chemo brain. And, although it isn’t always possible, it’s a good idea to allow yourself to say ‘no’ to anything that’s not essential. Remember our parents and grandparents telling us, when we were young, not to overtire our brains? There’s something in that, whatever age you are!
Here’s our checklist, which includes suggestions from our Community Forum members, for making life just that bit easier when you have chemo brain:
- Aim for an early start - tackle hard tasks as early as possible during the day, when your mind is sharper and before you get tired.
- Aim to do one thing at a time and avoid doing too many things at once.
- Avoid stress and stressful situations (and people!) as far as possible. Deep relaxation techniques and meditation can help reduce stress levels. If these are new to you, Live Better With has a great selection of books and products to help you learn and develop a regular practice.
- Creativity can help – try to set aside a little time each day to do some you love, whether it’s painting, writing, potting plants or sewing.
- Eat as well and as healthily as you can – it’s as important for the brain as it is for the body. Take a look at the Eating Well section in the Live Better With online shop for recommended books and products.
- Give your brain a regular workout to keep it as active as possible, with puzzles, such as sudoku, crosswords, or learning a new skill or language. Live Better With has several recommended products that could help.
- Keep a notebook and pen or pencil in your pocket or bag for when you go out – or use your smartphone for notes and reminders while you are out and about.
- Listen to music – it’s great for the brain and a proven stress beater – and if you can make music, either singing or playing an instrument, that’s even better.
- Make daily lists of things you need to do or buy; write notes and reminders and put them where you can see them.
- Regular exercise – even a little each day – can make a difference both to how you feel and how you sleep. Visit our Doing Exercise section for a selection of recommended exercise equipment that you can use at home.
- Try to get a good night’s sleep and rest or nap when you need to. If you you’re looking for tried and tested products that can help you sleep more soundly you’ll find a wide selection in the Difficulty Sleeping section of Live Better With shop.
'I try to do one or two puzzles every day (without looking up the answers for clues!) Then… I have a few memory games that I play with the grandchildren.' Community Forum member
Read more about chemo brain:
Visit the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum – for information, advice, and tips and to share your own questions and suggestions.