Chemo Brain

Photo by Don Hollander


Chemo brain is a term used by cancer patients in treatment & by thrivers/survivors to describe memory & plain old thinking problems. The severity of the problem varies by patient. Usually the symptoms are self-reported & are dealt with as “complaints” rather than a disorder. Cognitive tests are not done on new patients before treatment, so it is difficult for a healthcare team to know if what the patient is experiencing is new or not. This should not make a difference, in my opinion, the complaints should always be addressed. This brain fog does have an impact on a patients daily activities. 

After all the research & articles I have read on this subject, this one is my favorite: The Cut: Finally, My Case of ‘Chemo Brain’ Is Vindicated, By , July 12, 2017.

Symptoms of Chemo brain or chemo fog may include the following according to the Mayo Clinic: Chemo Brain

  • Being unusually disorganized
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty finding the right word
  • Difficulty learning new skills
  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling of mental fogginess
  • Short attention span
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Taking longer than usual to complete routine tasks
  • Trouble with verbal memory, such as remembering a conversation
  • Trouble with visual memory, such as recalling an image or list of words

As I look at this list, I can’t help but think about how I feel when I am totally stressed out. Do you think that part of the problem is due to the stress of the diagnosis, fear of the unknown, fear of the treatment, feeling helpless & anger?  Yes, it is part of the problem & it does confuse the issue.

A very informative article & video I found about chemo brain is from the Simms/Mann, UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology: Countering Chemo Brain, Linda M. Ercoli, PhD, October 14, 2014 The transcript of the video is right below it.

There are no diagnostic tests for chemo brain. There are no definitive causes known to science at this time. Because of this there are no cures. This page in the Mayo Clinic’s: Chemo Brain has many ideas of how to cope with the symptoms. They also talk about the lack of medications to help the patient & list the ones typically used. The section “What Can You Do”  has a list of how to prepare for your appointment & a list of questions to ask your physician. This is a very thorough & helpful article.

Another good article is by the American Cancer Society: Chemo Brain I like this one because the author states upfront that this is a very real & sometimes distressing problem.

Looking at the research that has been done so far, I believe that complimentary therapies, exercise & diet can play an important role in relieving some of the symptoms. As I mentioned above, stress can confuse the issue for both you and your healthcare team. Here is a partial list of which of these therapies have science behind their use for stress relief. You can find a list of therapists on our SDCRI/Resource page

  • Massage 
  • Acupuncture
  • Energy Work
  • Expressive Art
  • Yoga
  • Zumba
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness 

When we look at what can help to alleviate the symptoms or at least give you some relief from them, we should be looking at what helps anyone with cognitive problems. Not just chemo brain. The aging brain may be giving researchers a map of what happens with chemo brain. It is all speculative at this time, but can be a useful tool for those of you with a chemo brain diagnosis. The symptoms of mild cognitive impairment are very similar to those listed at the beginning of this post. What research has shown helps cognitive problems may help you. Exercise & diet have research behind them as being useful.

Exercise is addressed in this articleUSNews: Health Buzz: People With Mild Cognitive Impairment Should Exercise Twice a Week, Research Says It involves issues with thinking and memory. By David Oliver , Associate Editor, Social Media |Dec. 29, 2017  Exercise is important for anyone trying to rebuild their immune system & it helps to relieve stress. The key with exercise is not how long or how intense it is but how consistent you are. Even 5 minutes every day is helpful. Choose an exercise that you will do everyday. I found going to the gym didn’t last long; too much trouble. We have a lot of rain so I invested in a stationary bike & a tiny stair stepper. I use both every day at the same time for 45 minutes total. I can live with that! You can even break up the time spent. I ride my bike in the morning & do the stepper in the afternoon. On nicer days I get outside & take a walk. You can very the time you spend exercising based on how you are feeling. Listen to your body.

Diet can help in many ways. Chemo brain & cognitive problems may be the result of a chronic inflammation in the brain as well as the body as a whole. We know that chronic diseases are considered inflammatory diseases. We also know that there is a scientifically proven link between the gut & brain. Yep, those gut buddies again. I think I can safely say; we are what we eat 🙂

There has been an increasing interest in chemo brain in recent years. Here is a sample of the research that has been done.

  • National Cancer Institute: Understanding “Chemobrain” and Cognitive Impairment after Cancer Treatment In this section, the author mentions how until 2012, when a research paper was published about chemo brain & breast cancer, physicians dismissed women’s concerns about their cognitive behavior. It is also suggested that these complaints may be from an “aging brain”.  The gist of this article is that it would be of great interest & helpful to be able to predict which patients will get chemo brain. Very interesting article.
  • Cancer Treatment Centers of America: Study finds ‘chemo brain’ persists after treatment in breast cancer patients
  • MedicalNewsToday: How long does ‘chemo brain’ last?, Published By : “Cancer survivors have long complained of cognitive decline following chemotherapy. This effect has been studied in some depth, but, for the first time, researchers ask how long these deficits might last.” This study on mice shows that the deficits from chemo brain may be long lasting. I think we can confirm that just based on anecdotal evidence.
  • Cure: More Than Chemo Brain: Several Factors Contribute to Cognitive Decline After Cancer, BY LAUREN M. GREEN, PUBLISHED JANUARY 18, 2016, Though patients and survivors often complain of chemo brain during and after treatment for cancer, a growing body of research shows that there are multiple causes behind the cognitive decline many survivors experience.” This is a very good article. The author quotes Tim Ahles, a behavioral psychologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, from his talk at the inaugural 2016 Cancer Survivorship Symposium. Worth the read.

I find it fascinating that the research is so late in coming. Also, that there hasn’t been any definitive conclusions drawn on what, why & how one ends up with chemo brain. Based on that, what do you have to lose by cleaning up your diet & lifestyle! If you have already made these changes to reduce the risk of cancer, build up your immune system or for any other reason, you are also reducing the risk of cognitive impairment in aging & even chemo brain. 

Until next week…Mary 🙂