Chemo Brain: What You Need to Know (2024)

Many people going through treatment for cancer may experience what’s commonly referred to as “chemo brain.” This has been described as mental fogginess or forgetfulness in some people. You don’t have to have chemotherapy to have chemo brain—people living with cancer and undergoing other treatments can also experience it.

Read on to learn more about chemo brain, the factors associated with it, and how to manage symptoms.

Chemo Brain: What You Need to Know (1)

Describing Chemo Brain Symptoms

Symptoms of chemo brain are often likened to “brain fog”—a temporary state of diminished mental capacity, including problems with memory and thinking—but it can be different for each person.

Up to 75% of people report symptoms of chemo brain during treatment, with 35% still reporting symptoms after treatment. For most people these symptoms are not a sign of any other cognitive condition.

Sensation and Intensity

The intensity can vary among individuals and can be impacted by a variety of factors, including age, general health before treatment, the specific chemotherapy drug and dosage, and whether there is any brain involvement of the cancer or any radiation to the brain.

Sensations of chemo brain can include:

  • Memory lapses
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble remembering things like names, dates, events
  • Trouble with multitasking
  • Difficulty learning new things
  • Trouble finding words
  • Feeling disorganized or having slowed thinking

Symptom Onset

Chemo brain can start during or after treatment. The cognitive impairment can vary widely among people, depending on what kind of chemotherapy was used, the kind of cancer being treated, and whether radiation to the brain also was involved.

Symptom Duration

The duration of chemo brain varies greatly. In some people, it goes away after treatment is over; in others, it persists and gets worse. This can depend on the specific chemotherapy given, the cumulative dosage given and how it was administered, whether any brain lesions are present, and any other drug exposure.

Why Exactly Does Chemo Affect the Brain?

Initially, researchers looked at the chemo brain/cognitive impairment in cancer issue purely from a pharmacotoxicology point of view; that is, looking at it solely from how toxic the chemotherapy agent was to the brain and its subsequent effects on cognitive functioning.

However, lately, that has shifted to looking at how a variety of cancer treatments impacts cognition, as well as a variety of other factors that can increase the risk of chemo brain and cognitive impairment. These factors can include:

  • Type of treatment
  • Stage and type of tumor
  • Age, socioeconomic factors, education
  • Stress/trauma or anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Comorbid diagnoses (other conditions that are also present)
  • Lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and sleep
  • Physical factors like heart health, inflammation, and glucose and lipid metabolism

All of these things can have an impact on the brain and cognition.

Cancer can also impact cognition even without chemotherapy. Cognitive changes like trouble with memory, attention, and multitasking can occur during treatment because of things like malaise (generally feeling unwell), sleep disturbances, nausea, stress and anxiety, use of steroids or sedatives, and anemia.

Long-Term Impact

Even minor cognitive impairment has been shown to significantly impact quality of life and self-image.

People have reported feeling a loss of identity, reduced confidence about going back to work, and increased social isolation because of their trouble remembering things, ability to focus, and reduced cognitive functioning. Social interactions may become overwhelming or cause anxiety for some because of fears regarding their reduced cognitive functioning.

The impacts of chemo brain can be long term in some people, and this can vary depending on what caused the cognitive impairment, the person’s age, their overall health, and any other health-related factors. Other treatment modalities like radiation or surgery might have also impacted the brain or nervous system, contributing to the cognitive impairment.

More research is needed to determine the definitive underlying causes, but it is likely a combination of factors.

Chemo Brain vs. Dementia: Related or Unrelated?

While chemo brain and dementia share symptoms, they are two different conditions. Chemo brain is directly caused by chemotherapy and is often reversible or lessens over time. Dementia causes cognitive changes due to degeneration in the brain and is progressive.

That being said, some research has found an association between cancer and dementia, while other studies have found the opposite. These discrepancies point to a need for more research on the matter.

How to Manage Chemo Brain

Tell your treatment team and healthcare providers if you’re experiencing symptoms of chemo brain, or anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes changes are needed to medications. In addition, there are other ways to manage the effects of chemo brain, including:

  • Make lists on paper or on your phone, including shopping lists and daily to-do lists.
  • Minimize distractions by cleaning up clutter in your environment and working or reading in quiet places.
  • Use planners and wall calendars to keep organized and remember appointments.
  • Keep your brain active by doing cognitive exercises like crossword puzzles and word games, listening to TED Talks and podcasts, or going to lectures.
  • Stay physically active, if possible.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Get enough rest and sleep.
  • Let people know what you're going through, so they can offer support.

Supporting Brain Health During or After Cancer Treatment

While there is no specific treatment for chemo brain, there are some things you can do to support and encourage brain health, both during and after treatment. These include:

  • Meditation: This can help you relax, focus better, and help clear your mind from any distractions.
  • Exercise: Regular physical activity can help relieve stress, improve thinking and alertness, and decrease fatigue.
  • Movement therapy: Movement therapies such as yoga, tai chi, or Qigong, and may help with focus.

Talk with your treatment team about your options for therapies and rehabilitation that may help focus, memory, and thinking. Before starting any exercise routine, check with your healthcare providers to make sure it's safe to do so.

Summary

Chemo brain affects most people going through cancer treatment. Though it can significantly impact life, the good news is that, in most cases, it tends to be temporary and improves once treatment is over. However, for some people, the symptoms can linger for years. While there is no cure for chemo brain, there are many ways to manage the symptoms and help minimize their impact on day-to-day life.

Chemo Brain: What You Need to Know (2024)

FAQs

Chemo Brain: What You Need to Know? ›

Chemotherapy cycles may be planned in such a way that there will be 5 days of chemo with 2 days of rest, all within 7 days (roughly). Maintaining drug levels: 7-day rule helps ensure that there is enough chemo in the body to fight cancer.

What is the 7 day rule in chemotherapy? ›

Chemotherapy cycles may be planned in such a way that there will be 5 days of chemo with 2 days of rest, all within 7 days (roughly). Maintaining drug levels: 7-day rule helps ensure that there is enough chemo in the body to fight cancer.

What I wish I knew before chemo? ›

Each chemo experience is unique. Don't plan your chemo response until you've gone through your first infusion. The effects of chemo are cumulative. They get worse with each cycle.

What are the hardest days after chemo? ›

“If you're on a strong chemo regimen, usually the day after is when you'll experience the worst symptoms,” says Iheme. “By worst, I mean you'll experience the most fatigue, weakness and nausea. Normally, three or four days after chemo, your symptoms will get better.”

How to cope with chemo brain? ›

Tips for coping with cognitive changes (chemo brain)
  1. Try to keep your life as simple as possible.
  2. Avoid trying to do too many things at the same time.
  3. It might be helpful to write notes and stick them up where you can see them.

Is 4 rounds of chemo a lot? ›

During a course of chemotherapy, you usually have around 4 to 8 cycles of treatment. After each round of treatment you have a break. This allows your body to recover. For example, if your cycle lasts 4 weeks, you may have treatment on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd days.

What is chemo belly? ›

Chemo belly describes how a person's abdomen can become bloated, gassy, and uncomfortable during and following chemotherapy treatments. The condition often ends following the completion of treatment. It can occur due to changes in the gut bacteria as well as changes in how food moves through the digestive tract.

Does your body ever fully recover from chemotherapy? ›

Most chemotherapy side effects go away in time, but some can linger and require monitoring or treatment. Possible long-term side effects of chemo include damage to your heart and peripheral neuropathy, in which damaged nerves can cause pain, weakness or numbness in the extremities – arms, hands, legs and feet.

What is the fastest way to recover from chemotherapy? ›

Do's for Post-Chemotherapy Care
  1. Eat healthy diet and stay hydrated. Eating a balanced diet and staying hydrated help support the immune system and promote healing. ...
  2. Exercise regularly. ...
  3. Get enough rest. ...
  4. Stress reduction techniques. ...
  5. Practice good hygiene. ...
  6. Follow-up appointments with a healthcare provider.
Apr 10, 2023

What makes chemo patients feel better? ›

Nutrition can make a big difference in how you feel during chemo. Protein smoothies are a great option if you need nutrition on the go or are experiencing lack of appetite or mouth sores—hydration is also key.

What is the biggest side effect of chemo? ›

Tiredness (fatigue) is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. Many people having treatment feel tired a lot of the time or get tired very easily doing everyday tasks.

What is the most aggressive form of chemotherapy? ›

Doxorubicin is one of the most powerful chemotherapy options for a wide range of cancers. Because of the way it works, doxorubicin can kill cancer cells at any point in their life cycle. It also stops cells from being able to reproduce.

How many years does chemo age you? ›

The long-term clinical importance of this decline is not known; however, VO2peak typically declines 10% every decade in healthy women, indicating that short-term chemotherapy may cause the equivalent of a decade of physiological aging.

Is chemo brain a disability? ›

In rare cases, people with memory and concentration problems are unable to work and may consider applying for disability benefits.

What vitamins are good for chemotherapy brain? ›

Antioxidants, such as vitamins E and C, may help protect the brain from oxidative stress. Research shows that cisplatin, a chemotherapy drug, can cause toxicities in the body due to the production of free radicals, which lead to oxidative damage in organs.

How long does chemo brain usually last? ›

Chemo brain can impact your memory, concentration and ability to problem solve for several months after chemotherapy has ended – even up to a year.

When are you most vulnerable after chemo? ›

People receiving chemotherapy may be at risk for getting infections. You are likely to be at higher risk between 7-12 days after you have received each chemotherapy does–and possibly lasting for 5-7 days, when your white blood cells are at their lowest numbers.

How many days does chemo stay in your body? ›

Safe Handling of Chemotherapy Waste Material. After chemotherapy treatment, the chemotherapy drug usually remains in the body for either 3 days or 7 days, depending upon the properties of the drug.

Is it okay to sleep next to a chemo patient? ›

Is there any risk to family and friends? You may worry about the safety of family and friends while you are having chemotherapy. There is little risk to visitors (including children, babies and pregnant women) because they aren't likely to come into contact with any chemotherapy drugs or body fluids.

Can you use the bathroom after someone who has chemo? ›

But they should not clean up your body fluids after you've had treatment. You can share a bathroom with others. If body fluids splash on the toilet, wear gloves and clean the area with soap and water. Others may use the toilet after you've cleaned it up.

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