Published on March 6, 2020
Have you ever experienced chemo brain? Maybe you have had this experience or one that is similar. Imagine being at a birthday party for a dear friend, and you suddenly forget their name. It happens.
Side effects of cancer treatment can include several issues, but one that is particularly frustrating is called chemo brain or chemo fog and is fairly common. It may have other causes—the stress of enduring and navigating cancer care itself, disturbed sleep, dietary changes, blood count changes and more. So, these terms aren’t 100 percent on the nose, but they are part of the common language of this cancer-related side effect. Up to 75 percent of patients with cancer experience some level of forgetfulness during, and sometimes after, treatment.1
What Happened to My Memory?
Even for people who are typically razor-sharp, the effect of chemotherapy on the brain is not imagined, it is real. It’s that “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, when you want to say something, but the words either do not automatically appear, or you use a totally different word for what you meant. It’s the experience of going into a room but not remembering why you went in there after you arrive. It can be incredibly frustrating and confusing, because patients may wonder if this is just a natural part of the aging process, or is something else going on?
Patients Helping Patients
Sometimes chemo brain manifests itself in one’s ability to concentrate. In this video, a caregiver of a patient with lung cancer talked about his wife’s difficulty concentrating after many months of chemotherapy. Fatigue, insomnia and anxiety during treatment may also affect a patient’s ability to handle complex tasks, and short-term memory may be affected. In this patient’s case, they were concerned that her cancer had spread to her brain. Thankfully, a CAT scan showed that her brain was fine.
Pancreatic cancer survivor Anne Gruzdowich talked about her personal experience with chemo brain and her advice for other patients is to understand that it is a real condition, but it will get better. Sometimes it can take months and even years to feel back to normal, but the brain fog should clear up in time.
Cancer and its treatment is not something patients snap back from immediately, it takes time. Patient Power is happy to share success stories of patients who have seen the light at the end of the treatment tunnel. Sonia Dolinger, a survivor of CLL, tells her compelling story of recovery. Sonia had to rethink her job, her finances and her family’s future because of brain fog. These days, Sonia is much better cognitively and in other ways too. She credits her walks with her dog Ellie for helping her to enjoy being outdoors. And, greatest of all, being in remission is the best gift.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- How long does chemo brain last?
- Should I keep a journal of memory issues I’m facing?
- Are there brain games or exercises that I can do to help me?
- Is there someone on staff who can help me cope with these symptoms?
- What else do I need to know that can help me understand more about this condition?
Ahles T, et al, Cancer- and Cancer Treatment–Associated Cognitive Change: An Update on the State of the Science, J Clin Oncol. 2012 Oct 20; 30(30): 3675–3686.
~Lauren Evoy Davis
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