The Benefits of Chemo Brain

We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

“Chemo Brain” is a very real phenomenon, yet it is not well-defined and often not well-understood. There is no agreed upon explanation for why it affects some patients more than others, or even why it affects them at all. The symptoms of chemo brain vary among patients but tend to include issues with attention span, short-term memory, and even spatial orientation. It can be a nuisance or even somewhat debilitating, but there are also hidden perks to suffering from this condition.

What Causes Chemo Brain?

Also known as “chemo fog” or simply “cognitive dysfunction,” researchers believe that chemotherapy is not likely to be the sole cause of this mental impairment. It may be brought upon in part by stress (including the stress simply from being diagnosed with cancer), or the associated anxiety or depression common in cancer patients. It may be caused or enhanced by a byproduct of cancer treatment such as fatigue, anemia, or insomnia — even a hormonal change or an infection. Different treatments or medications may also influence the symptoms of chemo brain, from pain medication to radiation therapy. It is even possible that some forms of cancer create chemicals that affect the brain’s ability to recall events.

There is not yet a standard medical treatment for chemo brain, though some drugs used to treat conditions such as ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, and sleep disorders are occasionally prescribed to mitigate symptoms. The general suggestion is that chemo brain is a temporary condition and will improve with time, so the emphasis for the patient is placed upon developing coping strategies and adapting to individual memory or processing issues. Strategies might include memory exercises, copious note taking and working from lists, and tracking when the “fog” is most prominent so that daily tasks can be scheduled to maximize the days when cognitive ability is at its peak.

Patients might be encouraged to exercise more and eat a nutritionally balanced diet, as well as doing what they can to get adequate sleep. Listening to music, journaling, and meditating might also help patients deal with the onset of chemo brain. Because memory problems are extremely common and the chemo brain umbrella is very wide, patients may even see marked improvement simply by creating distraction-free environments. Understanding chemo brain and how to cope with it is important, especially if a patient wants to take full advantage of what this condition has to offer.

That’s right, only by understanding the mechanisms of chemo brain can one embrace the use of this tool and the benefits it offers to the cancer patient.

Embracing Some of the Benefits of Chemo Brain

Chemo brain is the perfect excuse to forget virtually anything. Lost phone numbers or missed birthdays are easily blamed on chemo brain — even the inability to remember the name of that new co-worker… or your boss.

Get out of doing math. Nobody really likes balancing their checkbook or taking responsibility for having overdrawn that account, and now, as a cancer patient, you no longer have to. Chemo brain, plain and simple. Also, you have a free pass to avoid responsibility for the home budget as well as calculating the arrival time at Point Y of a train leaving Point X at any given time or speed.

Ignore boring conversations. This even includes Thanksgiving with the in-laws. Any time that you want to simply zone out and daydream, just put a mildly befuddled expression on your face when it appears a response might be in order. Focus on that delicious stuffing, all the warmer.

Take your time getting things done. After all, chemo brain means an inability to multitask. You can barely process the task at hand, much less decoding the steps required to complete it and move on to the next thing on your agenda. Relax: with chemo brain at your disposal, there is no rush to finish.

Cry at socially awkward moments. There is a remarkably freeing aspect to this condition, with patients prone to mood swings.

Make bad decisions! Well, maybe you wouldn’t want to do that on purpose. But we all make bad decisions sometimes, and chemo brain is certainly a convenient “explanation” when we realize our mistake. Use it as a “get out of jail free” card when you need it — but use it sparingly and wisely. After all, chemo brain should be a tool, not a lifestyle.1-4

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.