The condition known as chemo brain – which impacts approximately 20 percent of cancer survivors – is not new, but new attention from researchers suggests that it may be a misnomer.


Doctors now say that chemotherapy may be just one of many contributing causes of the often temporary cognitive changes for some cancer patients.


Chemo brain can be caused or worsened by a number of factors, such as other cancer treatments, difficulty sleeping or fatigue, hormonal changes, other illnesses, age, depression or stress and emotional pressure. Genetics may also play a role in the occurrence of chemo brain.


The signs of chemo brain are as varied as the people it affects. Symptoms include difficulty with memory, concentrating, multi-tasking, focusing and finishing sentences. Some cancer survivors with chemo brain struggle to find words and take longer to complete tasks. Many have trouble remembering details such as names, dates and major events, and may need help with daily life. While the effects of chemo brain typically are not permanent, they can linger for some people.


Medications for other neurological conditions, such as ADHD, can help treat the symptoms. Some doctors say that the most reliable “treatment” is a natural-remedies approach to coping with and taming symptoms. A healthy diet, exercise, and plenty of sleep can promote brain function and recovery. For some patients, “brain exercises,” like puzzles or learning new things, are helpful.

In addition, adjustments to daily life can reduce the effects of symptoms. The goal is to minimize opportunities for issues to arise and to have a plan in place in case they do. Simple strategies include:

Writing out your schedule for the day

Using reminders, such as sticky notes, for ordinary, easy to forget tasks

Breaking up large amounts of information into smaller, easier to remember pieces

Talking to oneself: whispering each step of a complicated process

Reviewing details of planned activities and meetings in advance, such as names, dates and topics of conversation

Repeating information out loud several times

As with all aspects of cancer care, one of the most important steps to getting through chemo brain is finding support. Patients experiencing chemo should reach out to family, friends and their doctor for help and ask for whatever accommodations are needed. For example, those who are often confused should not be left alone for long. Some may find that talking with other survivors experiencing chemo brain is helpful.

With the right support, chemo can be another of the many surmountable challenges that cancer patients endure, a fogginess that clears with the passage of time.

By Billie Marek, M.D., Texas Oncology–McAllen

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