If you’ve had trouble concentrating on a task, remembering words or directions, doing several things at once, or recalling a date or phone number, you may be experiencing cognitive changes after cancer treatment, often called “chemobrain.”  

Chemobrain describes thinking or cognitive problems, such as issues with short-term memory or word-finding. It may start after a cancer diagnosisinfo-icon or after cancer treatment. It’s normal to feel frustrated or worried about these symptoms. 

You Are Not Alone

Even though you may have never heard of it, chemobrain is real. Up to 75 percent of people with breast cancer who have chemotherapyinfo-icon report symptoms of chemobrain during active treatment.

Despite its name, chemobrain symptoms may not only be due to chemotherapy. They can be caused by other medicines used for breast cancer treatment (including hormonal therapies) or other experiences related to going through cancer treatment. People treated for other types of cancer may also develop chemobrain.

Chemobrain is seen in people of all ages. Older women may be at more risk, but young women also have difficulty with symptoms.

What Causes Chemobrain?

The reasons for chemobrain are under study, but several factors may contribute to it:

Besides cancer treatment itself, other factors related to the entire cancer experience may contribute to some chemobrain symptoms. These may include: 

How Long Does Chemobrain Last?

Everyone’s experience is different. Most people stop having these symptoms 6 to 9 months after completing cancer treatment. Still, about 25 percent of women continue to struggle with these symptoms. Some may have symptoms that last for years. 

How Can I Manage Chemobrain?

There are many practical ways you can address chemobrain. Talk with your doctor and healthcare team. It may help to keep a record of the problems you have and when they occur. Bring that information with you to discuss possible solutions with your providers. They might suggest a change in medicineinfo-icon to avoid side effects, or another approach.

These tips may also help you function better:

  • Try to get 8 to 9 hours of sleep at night.
  • Increase your activity. Aim for moderate exercise, such as walking, yogainfo-icon, or tai chiinfo-icon, at least three times a week. Even a short walk around the block with a friend or a pet can help. Exercise seems to help many patients with cognitive concerns. 
  • Manage your stressinfo-icon. Use music or a calming activity, such as knitting or reading. Consider meditation and other stress-reducing techniques.  Cognitive problems are often magnified when we are under severe stress. 
  • If you feel depressed or anxious, talk with your doctor. Treating depressioninfo-icon, if you have it, often helps with cognitioninfo-icon as well. A referralinfo-icon to an oncologyinfo-icon social workerinfo-icon or mental healthinfo-icon professional may help.
  • Improve your nutritioninfo-icon. Consider decreasing processed and sugary foods in favor of whole foods that have fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats and proteininfo-icon. A nutritionistinfo-icon may help you improve your diet based on your needs. 
  • Use lists, calendars, and planners to help you focus and remember important details.
  • Organize your living and work spaces. Choose specific places to store items, such as keys or remotes, and always return them to the same spots.
  • Socialize. Feelings of chronicinfo-icon loneliness and isolation may put some at greater risk for cognitive problems. Interact with others in ways you enjoy.

Here are some specific tips to help you improve your focus:

  • Try to do one thing at a time. We often multitask, but sometimes it helps to focus on the issue at hand.
  • Rid yourself of distractions when working on a task.
  • Follow a routine. Having a pattern can help you focus.
  • Talk to people in quiet places.

If chemobrain feels very intrusive and your doctor doesn’t offer much help, ask to be referred to a speech therapist or a neuropsychologist, a doctor with special training in the connections between the brain and behavior.

In some situations, your doctor may consider using certain medicines, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or modafinil (Provigil), to try to improve your concentration. 

September 4, 2019
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