Resources for Patients and their Families

Chemo Brain

What many consider an inside joke among cancer survivors is actually a very real condition characterized by loss of memory, an inability to multi-task, and difficulty concentrating. “Chemo Brain” was once attributed only to chemotherapy treatments, but in recent years doctors have also dealt with patients who suffer from Chemo Brain after undergoing other treatments, like radiation and hormone therapy. In fact, the American Cancer Society has included mention of the condition in its Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families information booklet and reports that patients who have undergone a variety of anticancer therapies experience Chemo Brain symptoms.

What Causes Chemo Brain?

Chemo Brain’s specific cause is unknown, but oncologists do have an idea of what may cause the condition. Depending on the type of cancer and the location of the patient’s tumor, the disease itself may cause memory loss. Some anticancer drugs, including anti-nausea medicine, may cause Chemo Brain. Other factors include the age of the patient, reports of chronic pain or tiredness, the patient’s stress level, the presence of infection, and whether or not the patient is getting enough sleep. There may be more than one cause for Chemo Brain – doctors say it really depends on the individual patient. Some cancer patients, even those who have mesothelioma chemotherapy treatment, do not experience Chemo Brain at all.

Chemo Brain typically goes away once the patient has ended their chemotherapy, radiation or hormone treatment, but for some people with mesothelioma and other forms of cancer, sometimes the effects of Chemo Brain may linger even after their treatment concludes. Doctors estimate that as many as 70% of patients who receive chemo report symptoms of Chemo Brain; however, many patients do not relay their symptoms to their treatment team because they assume that experiencing such issues is something that all cancer patients go through, or because they may be worried that their symptoms are connected to a much bigger problem, such as their cancer having spread to their brain. It is imperative that patients report their Chemo Brain symptoms to their physician, so that they can begin to address the problem.

Scientific Evidence of Chemo Brain

Imaging tests have indicated that, in many cancer sufferers, the portions of the brain that control memory, organization and planning and inhibition are actually smaller following chemo treatment. This was more common in patients who received high doses of chemo – such as patients who have undergone a bone marrow transplant. Studies conducted about a year and a half after a patient experienced chemotherapy show that some patients were still experiencing slowed reaction times and issues with muscle coordination. However, their ability to recall important information was improved.

Managing Chemo Brain

Patients suffering from Chemo Brain do have some options for managing their frustrating symptoms. Doctors and cancer treatment experts recommend adopting some of the following habits in an effort to ease the daily burden of Chemo Brain:

  • Use a daily planner or organizer to record daily events, appointments, medication reminders, and important names and telephone numbers

  • Eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of vegetables, which are reportedly linked to memory and brain function, especially in older people

  • Get exercise: of course, patients with cancer must receive approval from their physician before engaging in any type of exercise, but there is no disputing the many benefits of exercise, including improved mood, better sleep and better brain function

  • Follow a routine, and share the routine with your cancer treatment team so that everyone is able to follow a schedule and maintain routine on a daily basis – many patients have their daily routine posted on their door or somewhere in their hospital room so that hospital staff and others can easily reference it

  • Ask for help: patients experiencing the symptoms of Chemo Brain may consider telling their doctors, nurses and other support people what they are going through, and saying something like “I’ve been having some trouble remembering things and staying organized lately, so if you could help me to remember...” – this way, a patient’s treatment team can be prepared and can help the patient if they forget something or begin to feel frustrated

There are many other ways to manage the symptoms of Chemo Brain, and a patient suffering from these symptoms can talk to their doctor about the best ways to personally address the issues they are facing.

Currently, there is no “cure” for Chemo Brain. Doctors and patients must find ways to manage the symptoms together. Doctors are now looking at medications that treat other illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s and ADD, to see if they may be successful in minimizing the effects of Chemo Brain.



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