Cancer

Chemo Brain: What is it?

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s an incredibly stressful time. You’re thinking about the illness, your future and your treatment plan – and that's just the start. “Just like when you get any type of bad news, or have a major loss, it takes a major psychological toll on you,” Andrew Parchman MD, of the TriHealth Cancer Institute, explains. “You’re thinking 100 miles a minute about everything that’s going on and that, in and of itself, causes a degree of mental fatigue.”

Frequently when patients get a new cancer diagnosis and start treatment with chemotherapy they notice a mental slowness or fog that is commonly called chemo brain. The symptoms that patients frequently experience include:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble multitasking
  • Difficulty with remembering details
  • Taking longer to finish tasks
  • Trouble remembering common words

Related: Benefits of Cancer Wellness Programs

Is Chemo Brain Common?

“It’s fairly common,” Dr. Parchman says. However, since so much of chemo brain is related to the anxiety associated with a new cancer diagnosis, Dr. Parchman says the mental cloudiness may actually improve or go away once you start chemo, "This is because they realize there's a clear plan of action, rather than just wandering into the unknown."  

Ways to Manage Chemo Brain

First, it’s important to note that chemo brain typically goes away within a few days to a couple weeks of finishing chemo. It’s generally not something that causes long-term side effects.

As patients are undergoing cancer treatment, they meet frequently with their oncologist to discuss any symptoms that they are experiencing. At the Trihealth Cancer Institute, a multidisciplinary team of social workers, psychologists, nutritionists, and palliative care specialists all work together to ensure patients are getting the best care possible. If you are experiencing chemo brain your oncologist may discuss changes to your treatment plan, or enlist some of these other team members to help out. 

Otherwise, managing chemo brain involves a candid discussion between you and your oncologist regarding the risks and benefits of treatment. “Many times it depends on what the goals of treatment are,” Dr. Parchman points out. If someone has breast cancer, for example, and chemo is a significant part of the treatment process for potentially curing the cancer, then generally your doctor would advise you to push through the treatment. "Whenever patients are on treatment we are constantly re-evaluating the risks and benefits," Dr. Parchman explains. “The goals that we have are to fight cancer and to hopefully cure people, but also always to comfort them and to provide a better quality of life.”

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Last Updated: September 05, 2014